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U.S. Navy Rejects Atheist Chaplain Application to Join Corps

Sailors and Marines render a hand salute as the multi-purpose amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island LHD 8 passes the USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, 2012. Image courtesy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Dominique Pineiro/US Navy. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee said on Wednesday that the United States Navy’s decision to deny the application from a “secular humanist” for its chaplain corp was the appropriate decision for a post that is designed to support the religious needs of members.

“The Navy’s leadership has done the right thing,” Roger Wicker said on Wednesday, the Washington Examiner reported. “The appointment of an atheist to an undeniably religious position is fundamentally incompatible with atheism’s secularism. This decision preserves the distinct religious role that our chaplains carry out.”

The Humanist Society had backed the Jason Heap’s application, first rejected by the Navy in 2014, but a Navy chaplain advisory board recently recommended approving it — drawing quick condemnation from Congress, the Examiner reported.

The possibility of an atheist chaplain set off an outcry from both sides of Capitol Hill, and 45 House members and 22 senators sent letters of opposition this month to Navy leaders.

The service already has the authority to create programs to support atheists and humanists, senators said.

The Navy Chaplain Corps is manned by officers who promote religious and spiritual well-being among sailors and Marines. It represents a variety of religions including Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism.

“Secular humanism is nonreligious, espousing no belief in a realm or beings imagined to transcend ordinary experience,” according to the Council for Secular Humanism. Instead of religion, it proposes “a comprehensive, nonreligious lifestance” that emphasizes reason and science to determine how to make life’s ethical choices.

Reps. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) and Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) wrote a letter on March 9 expressing their concerns, which said, in part:

We are concerned that the Navy is taking steps to expand the chaplain corps beyond its focused purpose of protecting and facilitating the constitutional right of service members to the free exercise of religion. The chaplaincy was designed to facilitate the exercise of religious belief, no philosophical belief; this is the bright line that the Department of Defense must use in defining the boundaries of the chaplain corps.

“The chaplain corps is an institution older than our nation, first created in 1775 by General George Washington to serve the specifically religious needs of his troops, and repeatedly reinforced by Congress as a fundamentally religious entity in the hundreds of years since,” the letter continued. “Most recently, in 2016, the Senate Armed Services Committee included the language in its report accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) speaking to the religious role of the chaplain corps.”

“We do not suggest that Dr. Heap’s educational background and experience are unimpressive,” the letter said. “However, education and experience alone are not the full measure of qualifications for service in the chaplain corps. Without a belief in the transcendent, and with an avowed opposition to religion itself, an individual cannot fulfill the mission and duties of a chaplain.”

The Examiner reported that Heap filed a lawsuit in 2014 in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, VA, against the Navy and the Pentagon over the denial of his application to the Chaplain Corps.

The Colorado NBC affiliate KOAA reported that Hartzler and Lamborn released statements on Wednesday on the Navy’s decision, which read, in part:

“This historic institution serves a vital purpose for today’s service members, ensuring the free exercise of religion for our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines,” Hartzler said. “I am pleased to hear that Navy has upheld the integrity of the chaplaincy.”

“The very definition of the chaplaincy was at stake here, so I am relieved to see the Navy’s response,” Lamborn said. “Appointing a secular-humanist or atheist chaplain would have gone against everything the chaplaincy was created to do.”

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