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Navy priest sues over right to celebrate Mass during U.S. shutdown

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Roman Catholic priest who says the government shutdown keeps him from performing religious services at a U.S. Navy base filed suit with a parishioner on Tuesday to be able to celebrate Mass at a chapel.

The suit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington by the Rev. Ray Leonard, of St. Marys, Georgia, claims the shutdown barred him from carrying out religious duties at the Kings Bay, Georgia, submarine base.

Leonard and parishioner Fred Naylor, a Navy veteran from St. Marys, said the shutdown violated their First Amendment rights to free speech, association and exercise of religion.

Leonard, a civilian, said he had been told that if he celebrated Mass at the base's Kings Bay Chapel voluntarily during the shutdown he would be arrested. Leonard's contract with the Navy started on October 1, when the shutdown began.

The suit said that the chapel was closed to Catholic services but Protestant services were still being held there.

Scott Bassett, a base spokesman, said the Navy lacked funds to pay Leonard and denied he had been told he would be arrested. Active-duty personnel unaffected by the shutdown were performing Protestant services, he said.

The suit seeks to prevent the government from applying a law that allows voluntary services only in emergencies.

The lawsuit is filed against Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the Department of Defense and the Department of the Navy.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Jackie Frank)

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