Religious groups feel the pinch of government shutdown

The Lincoln Memorial is closed during the government shutdown on Oct. 6, 2013.

WASHINGTON (RNS) As the government shutdown enters its second week, some religious groups are starting to feel the pinch, and they’re also finding ways to reach out.

More than 90 Catholic, evangelical and Protestant leaders have signed a statement rebuking “pro-life” lawmakers for the shutdown, saying they are “appalled that elected officials are pursuing an extreme ideological agenda at the expense of the working poor and vulnerable families” who won’t receive government benefits.

Starting Wednesday, evangelical, Catholic and mainline Protestant leaders will hold a daily “Faithful Filibuster” on Capitol Hill with Bible verses on the poor “to remind Congress that its dysfunction hurts struggling families and low-income people.”

Here’s how the shutdown is impacting religious groups in ways large and small:

Rescheduled weddings

The Washington National Cathedral's west center tympanum, bishop's garden, bishop's lawn, south side, south facade and central tower. (August 10, 2012) Photo by Craig Stapert courtesy Washington National Cathedral

The Washington National Cathedral’s west center tympanum, bishop’s garden, bishop’s lawn, south side, south facade and central tower. (August 10, 2012) Photo by Craig Stapert courtesy Washington National Cathedral

The national parks closure has prompted a blessing for some couples locked out of their planned wedding venues. Churches are opening their gardens and doors to shutdown refugees.

First, Washington Episcopal Bishop Mariann Budde invited displaced couples to wed at the Bishop’s Garden at the Washington National Cathedral. There are at least 11 weddings booked during the next two weeks, diocesan spokesman Jim Naughton said. Three have been held so far.

Then, a small church near Cincinnati, Church of Our Saviour/La Iglesia de Nuestro Salvador in Mount Auburn, Ohio, followed the cathedral’s lead.

“We have a small garden, but it’s really nice,”  the Rev. Paula Jackson told a local website. “We don’t know how long this shutdown is going to last … This is one thing we can do for people, who have a very important moment in their lives planned.”

For couples whose Grand Teton National Park wedding dreams were dashed, there’s hope: St. John’s Church in Jackson Hole, Wyo., is offering shut-out sweethearts the spacious community green in front of the main sanctuary.

St. John’s Rector Ken Asel  said he will put out the word that the biggest private green space in Jackson Hole will be available for the couples. Unfortunately, St. John’s most famous chapel, the Chapel of the Transfiguration with its window view of Grand Teton, will not be available because it is surrounded by the national park.

Workmen who needed to winterize the building for the season had to outrun park rangers once the roads through the park to the chapel were locked down.

D.C. sites shuttered

The play “The Laramie Project,” about gay rights icon Matthew Shepard, was scheduled to be performed at the historic Ford’s Theatre in Washington, but several of its October dates have shifted to the nearby First Congregational United Church of Christ. The theater, where President Lincoln was shot in 1865, is operated through a partnership between Ford’s Theatre Society and the National Park Service.

The Lincoln Memorial is closed during the government shutdown on Oct. 6, 2013.

Photo courtesy Flickr user reivax via Wikimedia Commons

The Lincoln Memorial is closed during the government shutdown on Oct. 6, 2013.

Church bus accident

The National Transportation Safety Board might have investigated the Oct. 2 church bus accident in which eight people died in eastern Tennessee. But all of its highway investigators were furloughed.

“In this particular case I think it’s highly likely that we would have responded to it, but again, with our investigators furloughed, it’s impossible to do that,” Sharon Bryson, the NTSB’s deputy director of communications, told NBC News.

Charitable funds dry up

The government shutdown also threatens to reduce or shutter charitable services operated by faith-based groups that use federal funds.

As Catholic News Service reports, the Diocese of Wichita (Kansas) is covering the costs of programs for homeless families and battered women run by the local branch of Catholic Charities. In Washington, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said it would be able to continue assisting immigrants through its Migration and Refugee Services for a couple of months if necessary.

But officials also made it clear that these are only stopgap measures that still leave the poor and vulnerable at greater risk.

“It is hypocritical and shameful for those who tout their commitment to family values to show such callous indifference,” said an Oct. 2 statement released by Faith in Public Life and signed by a range of Catholic and other Christian leaders.

Contraception mandate lawsuits

Justice Department lawyers are asking for more time in a case challenging the Obama administration’s contraception mandate, which has drawn strong opposition from a number of religious groups and institutions, including a suit filed by Geneva College in western Pennsylvania.

During the shutdown, government attorneys “are prohibited from working, even on a voluntary basis, except in very limited circumstances, including ’emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property,'” federal attorneys told a federal court in Pittsburgh, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

(RNS1-JUN14) In Iraq, chaplain Endel Lee (center, wearing protective jacket) leads a prayer before a convoy leaves base in 2005. Southern Baptists like Lee have a large presence among active-duty military chaplains, and some denominational leaders say they will have to resign when the repeal of Don't Ask/Don't Tell takes effect. For use with RNS-DADT-CHAPLAINS, transmitted March 25, 2011. Religion News Service courtesy of Baptist Press.

In Iraq, chaplain Endel Lee (center, wearing protective jacket) leads a prayer before a convoy leaves base in 2005. Religion News Service courtesy of Baptist Press

Military chaplains

The shutdown caused some initial confusion about whether military chaplains would be able to perform religious services. The House passed a resolution Saturday (Oct. 5) urging the secretary of defense to not allow the government shutdown to reduce religious services on military bases. The Senate has not yet voted on the bill.

Military chaplains continue to work during the shutdown, but the resolution was aimed at contract chaplains involved in performing religious services or conducting religious activities, according to Military Times. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he would reinstate almost all of the 350,000 civilian employees of the Defense Department, which was expected to allow contract priests to say Mass.

Still, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services says the shutdown is threatening Catholic service members’ religious rights. “Priests who minister to Catholics on military bases worldwide are not permitted to work — not even to volunteer. During the shutdown, it is illegal for them to minister on base and they risk being arrested if they attempt to do so,” warned John Schlageter, general counsel for the military archdiocese.

Sixth & I Historic Synagogue received $75,000 in preservation funding to renovate a dozen of its stained glass windows. Photo by Bruce Guthrie/courtesy The Harbour Group

Sixth & I Historic Synagogue received $75,000 in preservation funding to renovate a dozen of its stained glass windows. Photo by Bruce Guthrie/courtesy The Harbour Group

Fun for furloughed federal employees

A short walk from the Capitol sits Sixth & I, a restored synagogue that is now part synagogue and part cultural center and that has proven especially popular with younger Jewish adults. During the shutdown, Sixth & I sponsors “Shutdown Central” under the motto “A shutdown shouldn’t mean putting your mind to rest. Let’s make something out of this nothing.”

On any given day, that means a roster of programming that can include improv classes with local comedians, a class on government transparency and a knitting circle. But every day there’s “Political Ping Pong,” board games and the constant streaming of “The West Wing.”

In Vernal, Utah, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church offered free lunch to furloughed employees on Sunday (Oct. 6): “We recognize that those who are employed by the Federal Government are an integral part of what makes our community work and that their loss of wages is through no fault of their own.”

About the author

Kevin Eckstrom

Kevin Eckstrom joined the Religion News Service staff in 2000 and became editor-in-chief in 2006.

About the author

Cathy Lynn Grossman

Cathy Lynn Grossman specializes in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics. She also writes frequently on biomedical ethics and end-of-life-issues

About the author

Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a national correspondent for RNS, covering how faith intersects with politics, culture and other news. She previously served as online editor for Christianity Today where she remains an editor-at-large.

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.

About the author

Katherine Burgess

Katherine Burgess has lived in California, Cambodia and Tennessee. She has covered subjects as varied as a United Nations tribunal, church leadership conferences and a maximum security prison. She is currently based in Washington, D.C.


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  • My goodness! What kind of nonsensical argument is this? “The government shut down is harming religion”? Then what kind of impotent god are you serving? Good grief! You think heaven is in a teasy because a bunch of democrats & republicans can’t come together on a budget? My!

  • Why scold? They are trying to fill a gap. What are you doing to alleviate the suffering of women, infants, and children under 6 years old who can’t get their benefits because of the shutdown. I don’t want a literal answer: do something!

  • I don’t think they are saying that the government shutdown is harming religion. The title is weird in my opinion because after reading this all I see is that religions have been helping people as much as possible, so I guess that’s where the pinch can come into play. Religious groups are going above and beyond to help people.

  • OK, I would have read their entire letter but the two sentences below were enough to make me want to loose my dinner.

    “There is nothing ‘pro-life’ or Christian about taking food away from pregnant women and babies. It is hypocritical and shameful for those who tout their commitment to family values to show such callous indifference.”

    Hypocrisy abounds. By teaching poorly educated, superstitious, 3rd world people that God says their men should not wear condoms when making love, or they will forfeit their very souls to eternal damnation in the fiery pit of hell, religions, most especially the Catholic Church, have been complicit in the deaths of thousands of people due to AIDS.

    I can’t see how the elimination of mothers and fathers due to this terrible disease supports family values. And the word “shame” doesn’t even come close to what they should feel for doing this.

    I don’t believe in a God, but if their was one, and it cared about what we do, one to another, and either punished or rewarded us for our actions, I think many “religious” people would come to realize the truth of how they have behaved toward their fellow man.

    Consider living life and loving people, without needing to believe that in the end you will get the carrot, or fearing that you will get the stick.

    Good day!

  • Why shouldn’t the religious groups suffer like everyone else from the shut-down, so many of them couldn’t function with out taxpayers money–which should be considered unconstitutional–and they should share the pain just as they unconstitutionally take the gain. If they can’t exist on their own, that only means they don’t have the proper support to exist at all.

  • Don’t blame the Democrats. It’s the Republicans and their base of religious-right fanatics who are causing the shut-down and threatening default. We shouldn’t be supporting religion in any of its functions, anyway. Churches and religious groups don’t pay taxes. Why should they receive our support? Even the clergy receive tax exemptions in many states just for being church employees.

    We are totally ignoring the First Amendment and all the awful religious history that compelled the Framers to come up with that first clause in the First Amendment to our Constitution. They presumed that amendment would keep our government separated from all the evil that always resulted when religion was bound with secular politics and the churches were a part of secular government.

    Look at the mess we are now in because we have dared to ignore that First Amendment. The religious right is driving the Republican party. It has become a rank religious party. And the Catholic bishops think they can inflict their theology into our legislation. And none of them, as churches or church members pay taxes. Yet they are given untold billions from the public till. If that isn’t support of religion and churches, what is?

  • Beware of certain churchmen in California who present a church need as one thing, but is really for something else entirely. Then they steal from unsuspecting senior citizens who are church members under these false pretenses.