This week the House of Representatives approved an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act intended to bar the military from hiring Humanists as chaplains — or, as the bill’s sponsor, Rep. John C. Fleming, R-La, put it, “atheist chaplains.”
Fleming’s rationale was that “there is no way that an atheist chaplain or atheist whatever can minister to the spiritual needs of a Christian or a Muslim, or a Jew, for that matter.” I’d like to ask Fleming whether an atheist chaplain would be less preferable than a Wiccan (i.e. pagan) chaplain, inasmuch as Wicca is recognized as a religion by the military.
In fact, Wicca has to be so recognized, under the Free Exercise Clause of the of the Constitution. It’s because Americans are guaranteed the right to practice their faith — and serving in the military makes that more difficult — that the hiring of military chaplains does not represent a violation of the Establishment Clause.
Ah, but what about Humanists/Atheists?
I’d say that just as the government has, since Welsh v. United States (1970), recognized that non-theists are as entitled to be conscientious objectors as theists, so should it recognize that non-theists in the military have spiritual needs that entitle them to the same protection of the Free Exercise Clause as theists.
Indeed, the case for that was eloquently asserted just this week by Robby George, the staunchly conservative Princeton professor of jurisprudence who has just become chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed co-authored with the Vice-Chairwoman Katrina Lantos Swett, George wrote:
Because the freedom to live according to one’s beliefs is so integral to human flourishing, the full protections of religious liberty must extend to all—even to those whose answers to the deepest questions reject belief in the transcendent.
Military regulations merely require that a would-be chaplain have the endorsement of “a qualified religious organization,” and all the Fleming amendment does is bar that mandate from being contravened. If a Humanist is deemed qualified by the Humanist Society to address those deep questions, then that should be qualification enough him or her to serve as a military chaplain.