A U.S. Navy Chaplain job description includes "facilitating the religious requirements of all faiths." (Photo source: U.S. Navy)
Rep. John Fleming (R-La) introduced the amendment to block atheists from becoming chaplains in the U.S. military.
WASHINGTON, D.C. (KSLA) -
An amendment to block the military from appointing atheist chaplains has been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Introduced by Louisiana Rep. John Fleming, the amendment is designed to head off an effort to allow atheists and "humanist" chaplains, by preventing the Department of Defense from appointing chaplains without an endorsing agency. It passed Tuesday night by a vote of 253-173.
In a statement touting the amendment's passage, Fleming says "The notion of an atheist chaplain is nonsensical; it's an oxymoron. This is the third time since June that the House has sent a message to the Department of Defense that atheist chaplains should not be appointed."
You can watch Rep. Fleming's remarks in support of the amendment on the House floor here.
The American Atheists has supported the rule of what they refer to as "Humanists" in the U.S. military. The national non-profit is described as being dedicated to defending the civil liberties of atheists and advocating for the complete separation of church and state. In a statement released Wednesday in response to the amendment's passage, spokesperson Dave Muscato said the organization is "disappointed in the House decision to deny nonbelievers equal representation in this role."
"The position of chaplain is important to the well-being of the members of our armed forces and their families," Muscato continues."Although mental health services are available to members of the military, when service members seek mental health options, it is noted permanently on their record. The services of chaplains are completely confidential and do not go through official channels, which makes the availability of chaplains for soldiers of all worldviews that much more vital."
Fleming dismisses statistics offered by atheist organizations about the religious demographics of the military, suggesting that they are exaggerated. "In reality, less than one percent of service members self-identify as atheists, and all chaplains stand ready to serve any member of the Armed Forces, regardless of whether he or she shares the chaplain's faith."
Not so, insists Muscato. "There are an extraordinary number of nonbelievers in America's military. About 1 in 4 are nonreligious or atheists-more than the Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists combined-all of whom have their own chaplains." That's why the organization believes that "Humanists should be afforded the same access as the nearly 200 groups authorized to endorse chaplains for the United States military."
Defense Department statistics appear to back up Muscato's claims, showing that about 9,400 of the nation's 1.4 million active-duty military personnel identify themselves as atheists or agnostics, making them a larger subpopulation than Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists in the military. Atheist and humanist organizations also suggest that those numbers are underreported, claiming there are likely many more who choose not to come forward about their lack of religious belief and instead choose "No Religious Preference" on their dogtags.
Some countries, like the Netherlands and Belgium, currently allow humanist chaplains who offer a non-religious approach to chaplain support.
While evidence of the use of chaplains dates back to the times of the ancient Roman military, Fleming credits General George Washington with instituting the military chaplaincy and wants to preserve what he says is their "vital role in serving the spiritual needs of our Armed Forces."
"It is absurd to argue that someone with no spiritual inclination should fill that role," Fleming says, "especially when it could well mean that such an individual would take the place of a true chaplain who has been endorsed by a religious organization."
Even before Fleming's amendment, that endorsement played a major role in the commissioning of chaplains of most recognized faiths.
The Department of Defense requires an ecclesiastical endorsement from a religious faith organization registered with the Department of Defense, which specifically rules out secular organizations.
It allows the Department of Defense a way of determining the eligibility and competence of those who seek the role. Without centralized organization, some religions that are recognized by the U.S. military - including Wicca and Paganism - have yet to be represented among the chaplain corps.
Atheism stands on it's own as being defined by a lack of faith, presenting another barrier to acceptance in the role. Guidance and support of troops of all faiths is a fundamental responsibility of chaplains. Still, atheist organizations say that can be done just as Christian chaplains currently do for Buddhists and Muslims.