Beliefs Institutions Politics

House rejects call to allow nonreligious military chaplains

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

(RNS) House lawmakers late Tuesday (July 23) approved an amendment to a Pentagon spending bill to prevent the appointment of nonreligious military chaplains.

The amendment, sponsored by Rep. John C. Fleming, R-La., requires that only religious organizations be permitted to endorse chaplains for the military.

“The amendment holds the military to its current standards on endorsing agencies, which must be recognized religious and faith-based organizations,” said Fleming’s spokesman, Doug Sachtleben.

Currently, the Department of Defense recognizes more than 200 endorsing agents, all of them based on a belief in God. But there has been a recent push by Humanists, who do not recognize a supernatural divinity, to endorse their own military chaplains.

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

It is unclear if the amendment will affect the application of Jason Heap to become the  Navy’s first Humanist chaplain. Heap, a 38-year-old graduate of Brite Divinity School and Oxford University, has the endorsement of the Humanist Society. His supporters are asking the Navy to add the society to its list of endorsers and appoint Heap a chaplain.

Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, points out that military regulations already require that chaplains be endorsed — and not necessarily by an organization of believers in a divinity.

“The language (of the amendment) only requires adherence to the applicable instruction, which in no way restricts chaplains to only those who believe in some higher power,” he said. “Their amendment does nothing, so there’s nothing to be done in response. It just shows their ignorance about atheists, humanists, and military regulations.”

The amendment has the support of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, an organization of Christian chaplains. In a statement issued Tuesday, Chaplain Ron Crews, a retired Air Force Colonel, said, “A fringe minority is advocating for atheists to be commissioned as chaplains, but the very nature of the word ‘chaplain’ suggests that the individual possesses a belief in God and a desire to minister to spiritual needs.”

The amendment, which was attached to the Department of Defense 2014 Appropriations bill, was passed with a vote of 253 to 173. The larger bill is slated for a full House vote on Wednesday, Sachtleben said. It has not yet been considered by the Senate.

About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Click here to post a comment

  • “A fringe minority is advocating for atheists to be commissioned as chaplains, but the very nature of the word ‘chaplain’ suggests that the individual possesses a belief in God and a desire to minister to spiritual needs.”

    the very nature of the word chaplain implies a specific person in charge of the sanctuary housing the cloak of st martin(from the latin cappella), therefore there are no chaplains outside of france, there are no non-christian chaplains.

  • I wonder if this will affect the Unitarian Universalist chaplains already in service, since the UU does not require a belief in the supernatural.

  • I wonder what the handful of military Buddhist chaplains would have to say to Col. Crews’ assertion that chaplains “possess a belief in God.” As a non-theistic faith, Buddhism certainly does not fit that criteria. I think the only reason this is getting such pushback in Congress is because Atheists have – up to now – been such convenient straw men for religious (i.e. Christian) conservatives, who have strong presence both within the military and the House.

  • a non-religious chaplain? a chaplain is a religious position. I am quite curious as to why anyone would even consider a non-religious chaplain. why would they need a chaplain at all? is it purposeful attempt to lead people further into the grasp of satan?

  • Congressman Fleming of Louisiana brazenly proves how bigoted the religious right is and it displays how that religious right and its bigotry is so concentrated in the South. All the worst bigotry–and all bigotry is evil–has always been concentrated in the South from the first days of slavery and the writing of our Constitution that allowed that bigoted South to yet claim their slaves were three/fifths of a person so they could increase their law-making power in our Congress.

    The nation was wrong in not allowing the South to secede at the time of the Civil War, instead, millions were killed and maimed for the South. The current Illiterate governor of Texas should have his way. We should let Texas go the way the South wished to go in the mid-19th century.

  • Retired navy chaplain Ron Crews only displays linguistic, religious, and political illiteracy when he tries to claim the word “chaplain” implies a belief in a superior being. For his information and that of his co-thinkers in or out of Congress or the military, the word “chaplain” only refers to one who provides assistance or guidance in the search for meaning and ethics. It is not limited to belief in deities. Why should humanists or atheists have to go hunting for help when theists are provided assistance by the government right on their bases?

    Perhaps, in the spirit of the First Amendment requiring a separation of church and state, the government should keep its hands out of religion altogether. This is a perfect example of the problems history plentifully provided that caused the Framers to add that amendment to the Constitution so promptly in the Bill of Rights.

    Even the renowned Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger lamely defended the use of sectarian prayer at the start of legislative sessions on the ridiculous basis that the practice had a long history. That only means that violations of the Constitution and our laws gain legitimacy because those violations have long standing! Bring back slavery! Open all our jail and prison gates!

  • Steve, when have you seen Satan? Does a lack of belief in God automatically make you part of Satan’s group. Wow, my children are all ready taught reason and compassion. It makes me sad that people like you will look down on them because of who they are and not what they have done.

  • An IRS designated “church” must endorse a chaplain’s application. Is the Humanist Society “church” the real endorser of Jason Heap, or is it the American Humanist Association (AHA), tax exempt but NOT a church? AHA is described as the parent organization of the Humanist Society. Since a parent organization typically controls its subsidiary (Humanist Society), will the chaplains board deem the endorsement as coming from the non-qualified AHA or the Humanist Society? Will it matter that the Humanist Society is an affiliate of AHA, and that its assets and those of AHA are shown in combined audited financial statements? Since the audited statements say that the Humanist Society pays a monthly fee to AHA for performing management functions for the Humanist Society, does the Humanist Society have any of its own employees? If not, can it in any substantive way endorse Mr. Heap? I suspect the Armed Forces Chaplains Board will want answers to these questions.