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House legislation would rule out atheist chaplains

Jul. 1, 2014 - 01:23PM   |  
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A conservative lawmaker is once again looking at ways to blunt any effort to let atheist chaplains join the military, calling it an attack on all religions.

But it’s unclear whether his latest legislative effort would affect the most recent movement to get a nonreligious chaplain in the ranks.

In House debate on the annual defense appropriations bill the week of June 16, Rep. John Fleming, R-La., included an amendment that would bar defense funds from being used to appoint chaplains who lack an endorsing agency. He said the move is aimed specifically at atheist chaplains who lack a formal religious organization to back their teachings.

“Faith and spiritual leadership are integral and inseparable from the institution of the chaplain corps,” Fleming said. “It would be difficult for an individual lacking in any faith to be appointed as a military chaplain without first dismantling the purpose of the chaplaincy and making significant changes to [defense] policy.”

Fleming introduced a similar provision last year as part of the annual defense authorization bill, but it did not survive into the final legislation.

His latest measure was adopted by the full House, but it faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

It also may not make a difference.

For years, atheist and secular humanist groups have pushed to enter the Chaplain Corps, arguing their beliefs are sidelined by the military’s narrow view of who can act as a religious counselor.

Last summer, the Humanist Society offered support as an endorsing agency for Jason Heap, a 39-year-old who doesn’t believe in God but does believe that those without formal religious affiliations deserve some type of representation among the chaplains.

Despite multiple degrees in religious studies, Heap’s application was rejected by the Navy in May. The Navy’s chief of chaplains office declined to provide specific reasons for the rejection, but supporters speculate it has more to do with politics than a fair reading of his application.

Since Heap had an endorsing agency, it is unclear whether Fleming’s amendment would affect his or similar future applications.

But Fleming said the spirit of the amendment “affirms the spiritual role of chaplains in the U.S. armed services, preserving the integrity” of the posts by keeping them limited to traditional religious roles.

According to military data, only about 11,000 active-duty troops identify as atheist. But the military’s religious preference forms do not include “humanist” or other variations. About 277,000 troops state no religious preference.

More than 1 million troops are Christian. Less than 2 percent of the nearly 3,000 military chaplains are affiliated with non-Christian religions.

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