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Let there be humanist chaplains!

It should be possible for humanist Navy personnel to have their moral and spiritual needs met by professionals who share their non-theistic convictions.

Chaplain candidate branch insignia
Chaplain candidate branch insignia

Chaplain candidate branch insignia

Applauding the Navy’s decision to turn down educated humanist Jason Heap’s application to join its chaplain corps, retired reserve Chaplain Ron Crews told RNS’ Adelle Banks, ““Chaplains, historically and by definition, are people of faith. “You can’t have an ‘atheist chaplain’ any more than you can have a ‘tiny giant’ or a ‘poor millionaire.’”

You’d think that Crews, as executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, would want to make it possible for humanist Navy personnel to have their moral and spiritual needs met by professionals who share their non-theistic convictions. But the Chaplain Alliance is not about the religious liberty of the rank and file. It “exists to ensure that chaplains [italics added] enjoy the religious liberty and freedom of conscience that are vital to their effective work with the men and women of America’s armed forces.”

The organization was formed lest chaplains’ liberty to oppose the military’s acceptance of openly gay and lesbian personnel be restricted, and it has raised alarms that chaplains would be required to perform or otherwise acknowledge same-sex marriages. It is the latest expression of the longstanding reluctance of evangelicals to accept limitations on their ability to advocate for their beliefs in the armed forces.

The constitutional reason the U.S. Government can employ military chaplains in the face of the First Amendment’s ban on religious establishments is that serving in the armed forces restricts one’s First Amendment right to religious free exercise. In other words, what matters first and foremost is ensuring that military personnel have access to such services as their consciences require, whether they are Baptists or Buddhists, Jews or Jains, Sikhs or Wiccans.

Increasingly, Americans are identifying themselves as people of no religion. In April, the Army acknowledged this by approving “humanist” as a religious preference. The Navy has refused to say why it had turned down Jason Heap’s application for a commission, citing privacy concerns. That’s an evasion. Like everyone else in the military, humanists should be afforded the chaplaincy services they need.