Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Military Chaplains and Religious Discrimination

The religious right and their minions in the Republican Party seem hell-bent on denying rights and respect to the growing numbers of non-believers in the United States and in the U.S. military.  In so doing, they are not only showing contempt for the First Amendment, but also for our democratic society and the military, And, to top things off, they are undermining the chaplaincy which they claim to revere.

Stars and Stripes reports

Jason Heap wants to be a Navy chaplain. But he doesn’t believe in God.

Belief in a higher power, the 38-year-old humanist argues, has nothing to do with that work.

“I am aware there are many who would be reticent or militant against that,” he said. “But at the end of the day, my job is not to inculcate my viewpoints onto other people. My job as a chaplain is to be a facilitator, someone who cares for people, someone who is a sounding board.”

Heap submitted his application to the Armed Forces Chaplains Board earlier this month, in an effort to become the first humanist chaplain in military history.
He holds master’s degrees from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University and Oxford University, and has almost finished a doctorate too. He has been teaching religious studies to teenagers in Britain for the last five years and has been conducting scholarly research on 17th century Baptist literature for longer than that.  ...
Supporters argue he would be a shoo-in to serve as a chaplain if he were a practicing Christian.

Until the Reagan years,  military chaplains, as a matter of policy were appointed from a cross section of Protestant and Catholic to roughly reflect the religious views of the nation. Since then they have been recruited disproportionately from conservative denominations which have active programs to train and place chaplains.

As a result
While just 3 percent of the military’s enlisted personnel and officers call themselves Southern Baptist, Pentecostal or a member of a denomination that’s part of the National Association of Evangelicals, 33 percent of chaplains in the military are members of one of those groups, according to Pentagon statistics.
Source: stltoday.com
 Jason Torby,  President of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers notes that

“There are more atheists than any other single non-Christian group in the military. We deserve to be represented too.”

About 11,000 active duty military personnel identify themselves as atheist (military officials don’t include the term “humanist” on their forms) About 277,000 have no religious preference.

The MAAF has an instructive graphic and an insightful page on military religious demographics.


After an amendment to require the Secretary of Defense to appoint non-theistic chaplains was defeated in the House Defense Committee, Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) tried to get the amendment through without the support of the Committee.  It failed on June 14 by a vote of 274-150. Every Republican and 44 Democrats voted against it.

Not only did Tim Huelskamp of Kansas's First District, author of a Constitutional Amendment to ban gay marriage, vote against the amendment, he gave one of his typical bigoted speeches.



Huelskamp shows his contempt for  non-believers by referring to those "who claim to have no faith." He says that(so-called?) non-believers don't need chaplains; if they are having problems, they can go to a military counselor,  Only problem is that seeing a counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist, rather than a chaplain, will get recorded on the service person's records and could be a negative factor is seeking promotions and even being retained at the end of a tour.  It is a way of institutionalizing discrimination against "nones," "atheists," "agnostics," and the like.

Even worse, Huelskamp invokes the memory of Emil Kapaun, who has killed by the North Korean regime which imposed a state-mandated atheism, in order to impose a state-imposed anti-atheist policy.

The fact is that non-believers, atheists, and agnostics make up  a significant and growing percentage of the American population and, even more so, among young people who are the dominant age cohort among military personal.  On  purely pragmatic grounds, the military should accommodate these soldiers. Enlightened miltaries and societies recognize this.  The Belgian, Dutch and Norwegian militaries already have humanist chaplains.* The Israeli "government employs civilian non-Jewish clergy as chaplains at military burials when a non-Jewish soldier dies in service. The MOI provides imams to conduct funerals according to Muslim customs. "** If military personnel are not treated with respect and sensitivity, their efficiency will suffer.

But military efficiency is not the sole criteria. Even more weight should be placed on democratic values.   If there are to be military chaplains, they should reflect and serve the diversity of society. An entirely Catholic chaplaincy would not be acceptable.  Nor a purely Protestant chaplaincy.  Nor a chaplaincy which excluded Rabbis.   Nor one that excluded Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, or Buddhists.  And, by the same measure, a US chaplaincy which excludes atheists or humanists is undemocratic and unAmerican--and anti-military.

Huelskamp and his allies seem to assume that there are no Constitutional  problems with military chaplains and oblivious to that fact that their barring of non-theists from serving as chaplains could undermine the  constitutionality of this service.

No less a Constitustional icon than James Madison (:"the father of the Constitution") thought that chaplains (legislative and military) were unconstitutional.

The issue  is likely to come before the Courts.

Wikipedia notes
Two Harvard law students brought a suit in 1979 arguing that military chaplains should be replaced with non-combat volunteers or contractors. In Katcoff v. Marsh (1985),[14] The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit determined that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the suit and upheld the right of the military to employ chaplains. According to one analysis of the case, the court analysis described the First Amendment's free exercise clause and establishment clause as separate issues. It noted that only the wealthiest religious sects could provide chaplains for their adherents, effectively denying to other military personnel the "free exercise" of their religion.[15] The court also established guidelines for the military's chaplaincy programs, emphasizing the constitutional boundaries governing the program's administration and operations, including accommodating the rights and beliefs of each service member, and the avoidance of evangelizing and involuntary participation in religious observances. (emphasis added)
Looks to me like the GOP-Huelskamp chaplaincy might be in some danger.  It chaplains are ruled unconstitutional blame them, not the ACLU.



*Wikipedia, Military Chaplain
**US State Department, 2012 Report on International Religious Freedom: Israel and The Occupied Territories

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