November 6, 2014

Navy faces suit over denying humanist chaplain

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Jason Heap, who is applying to be the first humanist chaplain in the military. Photo courtesy Jason Heap

Photo courtesy Jason Torpy via MAAF

Jason Heap, who is applying to be the first humanist chaplain in the military. Photo courtesy Jason Heap

WASHINGTON (RNS) The Oxford-educated man who unsuccessfully sought to be the Navy’s first humanist chaplain is suing the Pentagon, claiming unconstitutional discrimination.

Jason Heap, who is applying to be the first humanist chaplain in the military. Photo courtesy Jason Heap

Photo courtesy Jason Torpy via MAAF

Jason Heap, who is applying to be the first humanist chaplain in the military. Photo courtesy Jason Heap

Jason Heap is certified as a humanist celebrant by the Humanist Society, which joined in the suit and is challenging both the U.S. Navy and the Department of Defense for not recognizing the group as an endorser of chaplain candidates.

“Dr. Heap’s qualifications and experience far exceed the standards articulated by the Navy for accepting applicants,” according to the suit, filed Wednesday (Nov. 5) in Alexandria, Va. “The Navy denied his application because of his Humanist beliefs.”

READ: Chris Stedman interviews Jason Heap

The suit claims the denial of chaplains “impairs the religious exercise of Humanists in the Navy.” Humanists make up 3.6 percent of the U.S. military, according to a survey by the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, which is affiliated with the Pentagon.

“Belief in divinity is not a litmus test for protection under federal law and the Constitution,” said Matthew A. Smith, a lawyer with Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, the Washington law firm that is representing Heap and the Humanist Society.

The suit also charges that the Navy inconsistently requires accommodation of religious practices for sailors while not permitting a humanist chaplain because “the Navy does not consider Humanism to be a religion.”

Many humanists are atheists, but some say that the term “atheist” is not sufficient to express their belief, or lack of it. Humanists generally emphasize their confidence in human potential.

Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a spokesman for the Department of Defense, said the Pentagon does not comment on pending litigation.

“There is no set timeframe for processing an application to become a chaplain,” he added. “Each case is different, and the length of time and outcome varies from applicant to applicant.”

The legal case for Heap, the coordinator of the United Coalition of Reason, comes at a time when other nonbelievers have sought recognition inside and outside the military. His chaplaincy application was rejected not long after the Army permitted “humanist” to be listed as a religious preference.

Heap’s suit notes that in late October, Chief Petty Officer Martin Healey was approved as an atheist lay leader on the USS Makin Island, a step that was approved by ship-level commanders.

Also in late October, a U.S. district judge denied the federal Bureau of Prisons’ request to dismiss a suit by an inmate who had sought to establish a humanist study group in the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan, Ore.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said it is “absolutely essential” for humanism to be treated equally with other belief systems in the military and prisons.

“Not because humanism is a religion but because it serves a very similar function in the lives of so many people, including the chaplains that want to serve in the Navy and people in the Navy who are looking for that kind of guidance,” he said.

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  • Normally I’m totally against calling atheism a religion. But why not, if we can get enough people certified as chaplains, perhaps we can begin to turn the tide against the heavy dose of Christian proselytizing that goes on in the military. Once the mainstream churches come around on gays and marriage equity, the last real trampled minority will be the freethinker (otherwise they’ll have nothing to talk about on Sundays!), so I guess we better get ourselves a religious status, huh? What is this parsing words I saw in the article? A humanist IS an atheist IS a freethinker and IS secular, let’s call it what it is and not play games. Golly, perhaps the sailors might even learn some science and some REAL American history for once!

  • Fourth Valley

    Err, no. Those terms are not equivalent. Not all atheists are humanists, as to be a humanist one must have an ethical philosophy that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, and not all atheists agree with such a thing. Not all atheists are “freethinkers”, as sadly there is a vocal minority of blind adherents to atheism. Not all free-thinking people come to atheism or humanism as conclusions, as such conformity is not found among free thought. Every atheist and humanist is secular, though, so that part is correct (though that is not necessarily reversible).

  • Fourth Valley

    “Golly, perhaps the sailors might even learn some science and some REAL American history for once!”

    Also you appear to be confusing a humanist chaplain with a science teacher. Simply employing nontheistic ministers does not teach an organization science or history. In fact, the humanist chaplain in question might not have knowledge in those subjects.

  • DCNB

    Humanist chaplain? Just plain silly….

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  • MarkE

    Hold on a sec. First, the men and women I served with in the Navy (submarines) had educational backgrounds and training equivalent to most undergraduate programs in the US. Many senior enlisted and officers had post-grad degrees. Science and historical knowledge is not lacking in the Navy.

    Second, the concern about “proselytizing” by conservative Christians in the military is overblown. Yes, it exists, but not to the extent that gets all the headlines and certainly isn’t driven by the chaplains – its a command-encouraged environment. So put the onus where it belongs, on the overzealous commanders.

    Third, Humanism is a religion. No, it’s not theistic, per se, but unlike atheism or pure secularism, humanism does have a core belief in “the value and agency of human beings.” Just as Judaism or Christianity believes in the value and agency of G-d and places trust and honor to such, so does humanism. It just replaces God with human wisdom and creativity and compassion.

  • samuel Johnston

    Hi MarkE ,
    ” It just replaces God with human wisdom and creativity and compassion.”
    This statement demonstrates your lack of understanding. The monotheistic God theory refuses to limit God’s power. Humanism is about values, but not “faith”.
    “… its a command-encouraged environment. So put the onus where it belongs, on the overzealous commanders.” B.S. It is about the Navy refusing to see to it that its officers obey the law. All Americans are obliged to uphold the law, including the Supreme Court decisions- especially sworn offices of the government.These “overzealous commanders” should be charged with insubordination at the least.

  • Clint

    Why is it “silly”? Because you don’t like/understand it?

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  • CCarmell

    Atheism and humanism are also not subsets of secularism. Consider the case of the early USSR, which intended to establish atheism as a state religion. Hardly secular. All of the aforementioned terms are distinct. There is significant overlap in membership, but there are outliers.
    Also, there are humanist theists. Frequently, these individuals are deists, like Jefferson.

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