As a military family member, Americans United lawyer Claire L. Hillan understands that military chaplains serve an important role in the lives of all service members and their families regardless of their beliefs. That’s why when the U.S. Navy recently refused to appoint its first Humanist chaplain, Hillan spoke out.
“I think a lot of people outside the military might not understand the role that military chaplains play and how a Humanist chaplain can carry out those duties,” Hillan explained in a March 22 “Wall of Separation” blog post.
But it was not meant to be. After an uproar from the Religious Right and conservative lawmakers, it was reported that the application of Jason Heap, a Humanist chaplain, was rejected, even after the Navy Chaplain Appointment and Retention Eligibility Advisory Board had given its initial OK.
Heap meets all the qualifications to serve as a chaplain. He holds a master’s degree from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University and a theological history degree from Oxford University. Even so, the Navy felt some heat from Congress and rejected his application. A group of 22 U.S. senators and 45 members of the House of Representatives each sent letters to the Navy’s leadership opposing Heap. This is the second time the Navy has rejected his application.
While government-supported religious leaders may seem out of place in a nation that separates church and state, military chaplains have a long history in the American military. They accompanied soldiers during the Revolutionary War, and in 1791, Congress authorized the appointment of a commissioned Army chaplain.
Today, chaplains have an important role to play. The men and women serving in the armed forces are often stationed far from home, including on ships, in foreign countries and in war zones, where they lack access to their houses of worship. But chaplains are there with them to provide religious counsel, allowing service members and their families to worship wherever they are based in any military anywhere in the world.
Chaplains not only serve as religious leaders for members of their own faith, they also assist service members and families of different faiths and beliefs. For instance, chaplains provide hymnals, prayer books and study guides, arrange places to meet, conduct services themselves or find others who can.
But those are just some of a chaplain’s responsibilities. They also provide vital assistance and counseling to all service members and their families. As Hillan, once a cadet in the Reserve Officer Training Corps and now an Air Force spouse, explained, “A chaplain is a friendly face, a counselor and a confidant for all service members regardless of their beliefs. From day one in the military, service members are encouraged to visit with chaplains for help with a wide range of personal struggles, often secular in nature. Chaplains provide counseling for deployment, suicide, grief and other important issues … chaplains give service members a safe space when they otherwise might not seek help from mental-health providers.”
During a 2014 congressional hearing, Rabbi Bruce Kahn, a retired Navy captain who served in the chaplain corps, explained the role of chaplains. He said they are supposed “to assist each person in [the] command to reach a more complete state of being based on the beliefs, values and practices that individual affirms.”
When chaplains accomplish this, it contributes to the overall success of the command. “Our success enhances unit cohesion, readiness and mission accomplishment,” he said.
Kahn added, “A Navy chaplain serves all by meeting them where they are and working to address their religious needs in a variety of ways depending on the religious backgrounds of the people to whom one is providing ministry amid all circumstances and conditions.”
And that’s just what Heap was prepared to do. In 2014 he explained, “Humanist chaplains … are openly prepared and equipped to minister to all members of the services – meeting people where they are and accepting them for who they are, with no reservation.”
In a 2013 interview, Heap affirmed, “As both a humanist and a scholar of religion, I have a deep knowledge and understanding of world religions. My purpose and focus as a chaplain will be for holistic well-being of anyone who is in need of pastoral care.”
Critics, however, persist. Retired Army Chaplain Phil Wright of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, for example, claimed that “just by definition of his belief system [Heap] is hostile or antagonistic to religion and could not meet the religious needs of the men and women serving in the military.”
In their letter to Navy officials, which was organized by U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), members of the U.S. House claimed Heap was not qualified to serve because he is a Humanist, asserting, “Without a belief in the transcendent . . . an individual cannot fulfill the mission and duties of a chaplain.”
Hillan feels differently. “Without question, a Humanist chaplain could carry out all these duties and serve service members and their families well,” she wrote.
As Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, a West Point graduate and a former Army captain, has pointed out, Humanists serve as chaplains in other contexts, such as universities, hospitals and counseling centers. Torpy also notes that other nations welcome Humanist chaplains in their military structures. In the Netherlands, for example, nearly 30 percent of the country’s military chaplains are Humanists. Moreover, there are a handful of non-theist chaplains already serving in the U.S. military.
Yet the letter from U.S. senators to Navy leadership, spearheaded by Sen. Roger F. Wicker (R-Miss.), said approving Heap’s application would be “a grave mistake.” Even more troubling, the letter says that the Navy “has sufficient authority to create programs for humanist or atheist service members,” seemingly suggesting that chaplains should not serve their needs.
But Americans United has pointed out that if this were true, many service members and their families would not be served by chaplains. “Humanists and other secularists in the military have just as many spiritual, emotional and psychological needs as other service members, and they have an equal right to access the services of the chaplaincy,” Hillan observed. “It causes real harm to the cohesion and overall spiritual and mental health of the military to act otherwise.”
As Torpy notes, the number of self-identified non-believers in the military has tripled in the past 10 years. That number is only likely to increase. According to recent polling by Public Religion Research Institute, 38 percent of Americans under 30, the age group most likely to join the military, have no religious affiliation.
Moreover, in March 2017, the Department of Defense expanded its list of recognized religions and beliefs in the U.S. military, bumping the number up from just over 100 religions to 221 faith and belief groups. The new groups include Humanism, heathens and earth-based faiths, and the list allows others to identify their denomination more accurately.
Although Humanism has been recognized by the U.S. Army since 2014, the new list means that every branch of the military will do so as well. As a practical matter, this means service members can select from a much longer list when choosing what to put on their dog tags and should find it easier to have their religions and beliefs accommodated, despite what lawmakers say.
In fact, chaplains already serve non-believers. As Kahn told Congress in 2014, “In the military, we serve everyone regardless of faith group as well as those who profess no faith at all.”
During his decades-long career, Kahn said, “I estimate over 95 percent of the troops whom I served were neither of my denomination nor even of my faith group. I served the needs of Catholics and Protestants of every denomination, different groups of Latter-day Saints, and numerous Christians of other affiliations. I served the needs of different groups of Buddhists and Muslims and more, as well as those with no affiliation, including agnostics and atheists.”
Kahn explained how he did this and how important it was. “It was mission-critical for me to learn as much as I could about these diverse faiths and practices,” he said. “The needs of the troops come first.”
Unfortunately, not all chaplains want to provide the “inclusive ministry” Kahn and many of his colleagues did, which Kahn called “logical, reasonable, and caring” in addition to “necessary to serve the command’s goals for unit cohesion, readiness and mission accomplishment.” For example, Capt. Sonny Hernandez, an Air Force Reserve chaplain, penned a controversial 2017 op-ed that became popular on conservative websites. In the piece, Hernandez advised Christian military members to ignore the rights of religious minorities and nonbelievers, while claiming it’s their duty to follow Christ, not the U.S. Constitution.
“Christian service members who openly profess and support the rights of Muslims, Buddhists, and all other anti-Christian worldviews to practice their religions – because the language in the Constitution permits – are grossly in error, and deceived,” Hernandez wrote on the Christian nationalist website BarbWire. “[I]t is imperative that Bible-believing military chaplains align themselves with the right endorser that has sincerely held beliefs that appeal to Scripture alone, and will not support or accommodate evil.”
The House and Senate letters to the Navy officials, Hillan said, are also dismissive of the rights of non-believers.
“Several dozen members of Congress took a narrow view of religious equality when they signed letters urging the Navy to reject a Humanist chaplain,” she said. “The letters spoke in elevated rhetoric about the military’s duty to give service members the opportunity to meet their religious needs – and then went on to reduce Humanists to second-class citizens because they’re not ‘religious’ enough.”
Hillan added, “It is the antithesis of religious freedom for government to decide which belief systems are deserving of exercise and support and to find that the many secularists in the military don’t deserve those rights.”
Although many secular people may hesitate to think about their beliefs in a “religious” framework, the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom protects religious and non-religious beliefs alike.
Hillan also noted that in rejecting Heap’s application, the Navy declined to take an important step toward inclusivity. She said, “Diversity in the chaplaincy is important because it tells service members of minority belief systems that there’s a place for them. And it tells members of the majority faith that religious tolerance is an important value.”
Torpy called the Navy’s refusal to certify Heap “a missed opportunity for the Department of Defense to provide for the atheists and Humanists in their ranks.”
Jason Lemieux, a former Marine infantryman who served three tours in Iraq and is currently director of government affairs for the Center for Inquiry, expressed concern that some lawmakers don’t understand what the chaplain corps does.
“When we were leaving Iraq after our first tour, our battalion first spent time in a relatively safe region of Iraq to decompress and readjust to normal life in the U.S.,” Lemieux, who describes himself as a Secular Humanist, said. “Our mandatory transition programming included a group discussion led by the battalion chaplain. He was very caring, and he asked questions to help us process our experiences and what we’d been through.”
Added Lemieux, “The Marine Corps emphasized pre-deployment and post-deployment counseling to help manage the transition into and out of combat. Chaplains played a central role in this totally secular, absolutely mandatory process.”
Despite the Navy’s rejection of Heap’s application, the effort to place a Humanist in the chaplaincy ranks may not be over yet. Lemieux told the Navy Times that Heap “continues to be interested in serving as a chaplain but has not yet decided on his next step.”