September 2013 Church & State | People & Events


The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that reportedly includes a ban on non-religious chaplains in the armed forces, although one critic says the measure is mostly symbolic.

As part of a defense spending bill, the House voted 253-173 on July 23 to include an amendment offered by U.S. Rep. John C. Fleming, (R-La.) that prohibits federal funding of chaplains that have not been endorsed by a qualified religious organization. 

“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, according to Religion News Service (RNS).

The controversy over this issue was fueled in part by an inflammatory report by the Family Research Council (FRC), a Religious Right organization based in Washington, D.C. In the report, FRC claimed erroneously that religious freedom is “under attack” in the military, thanks mostly to an “anti-religious culture on our nation’s military services [that has] intensified tremendously during the Obama Administration.”

Based on the FRC report and other fallacious claims from the Religious Right and its allies, Congress jumped to attack atheism in the military. But Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, noted that Fleming’s amendment doesn’t actually do much to keep non-theistic chaplains out of the armed forces.

“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,” Torpy told RNS. “Their amendment does nothing, so there’s nothing to be done in response. It just shows their ignorance about atheists, humanists and military regulations.”

In fact, there have already been Buddhist chaplains in the military, even though Buddhism is usually described as lacking belief in a personal god.

The issue isn’t likely to die down soon. Texas resident Jason Heap has applied to become the Navy’s first humanist chaplain. He has the endorsement of the Humanist Society, and his supporters have asked the Navy to add the society to its list of recognized endorsers, according to RNS.

In response to the hullabaloo surrounding the congressional action, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn and Interfaith Alliance President C. Welton Gaddy wrote an op-ed debunking the idea that religion is under attack in the military. In the piece, which was carried by “The Huffington Post” news site, the two ministers said true religious freedom is being undermined by fundamentalist Christians.

“Leaders from the Religious Right claim that the religious liberty rights of Christians are under assault in the military,” Lynn and Gaddy wrote. “This is simply not true, and the implication is an insult to people around the globe and here at home who truly do face persecution for their faith.”