WASHINGTON - Military chaplains will be able to offer worship services to members of the armed forces and their families despite the partial government shutdown under a bill moving through Congress.
The Senate backed a version of the measure late Thursday, expressing the sense of Congress that chaplains shouldn't be blocked from ministering to members of the military as the shutdown entered its 11th day on Friday.
Lawmakers were concerned that the shutdown could disrupt religious services.
The Senate measure, approved by voice vote, includes minor changes by Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., who sought to clarify the House-passed bill. Levin added provisions stating that the availability of religious services and clergy were "important to the morale and well-being of many members of the armed forces and their families."
He also included a provision that said it was Congress' hope that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel determines "that contractor clergy provide necessary support to military personnel and would therefore be covered under the appropriations made available" under a law that pays the troops despite the shutdown.
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., welcomed the vote, saying on Friday that "all service members should have the opportunity to worship, and no one should make that more difficult."
The work of military chaplains and the suspension of death benefits to the families of fallen soldiers have become entangled in the shutdown impasse.
Republicans insist that the law they passed before the shutdown began Oct. 1 covers both elements of the military. The Pentagon has said legal interpretations have barred them from paying death benefits or chaplains. Late Thursday, President Barack Obama signed legislation ensuring payment of the death benefits.
Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., sponsor of the House measure and a chaplain in the Air Force, has said that no matter the financial situation, the Bill of Rights guarantees free speech and religious worship. The House passed its version last Saturday on a 400-1 vote.
Democrats repeatedly have argued that if House Republicans would allow a vote on a Senate-passed bill to reopen the government, suspension of military death benefits and any obstacles for military chaplains would be resolved.
Due to the Senate changes, the bill on chaplains heads back to the House.