The NJ priest who faced down the federal government — and won

Father Ray Leonard seen at his home in St. Mary's, Ga. (Nancy Reynolds for The Star-Ledger)
Father Ray Leonard seen at his home in St. Mary’s, Ga. (Nancy Reynolds for The Star-Ledger)

The Rev. Ray Leonard knew not to wear the clerical collar identifying him as a Roman Catholic priest. It almost certainly would have gotten him deported.

He knew not to say Mass, hear confession or baptize a child. The acts might have resulted in harassment — or worse, arrest and imprisonment — for the families Leonard cared about.

During a decade spent teaching and helping the needy in some of China’s most impoverished and oppressed regions, the New Jersey priest learned what it was like to live in a land without religious freedom.

It kindled a greater appreciation for his liberties at home.

Which is why Leonard, 51, bristled at the U.S. government when it told him he couldn’t hold services at a Georgia naval base during last month’s government shutdown. Leonard, a civilian contractor on the base since Oct. 1, wasn’t deemed an “essential” employee.

In a case that made headlines across the country, Leonard filed suit against the Department of Defense, contending the directive violated his freedom of speech and his right to religious expression.

“I’ve lived under a system where somebody else dictated to you when, where, how and what type of religious service you can have — or not have — and I’m not going to come home to my country and call it the land of the free and the home of the brave and allow anyone to tell me, ‘You can’t have church this weekend,’” said Leonard, who is on leave from the Diocese of Metuchen. “It has to be resisted immediately.”

The Thomas More Law Center, a conservative Christian advocacy group, filed the suit Oct. 14 on behalf of Leonard and one of his parishioners at the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base. A day later, the Defense Department retreated, allowing Leonard and other priests who work as civilian contractors to return to ministry at bases around the world.

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