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Rep. Doug Lamborn: Pentagon Rejects Atheist “Chaplain”

In a cultural conservative victory for common sense the Navy has rejected a secular-humanist's application to serve in the Navy Chaplain Corps.

Our friend Dr. William Scott Magill of Veterans in Defense of Liberty and principled limited government constitutional conservative Republican Representatives Doug Lamborn (CO-5) and Vicki Hartzler (MO-4) led the Navy Chaplainsfight to deny outspoken atheist and secular humanist Jason Heap’s appointment to the Chaplain Corps.

Lamborn and Hartzler rallied forty-three Members of Congress to support the position that fundamentally, the chaplain corps is a religious institution that should ascribe to the religious needs of men and women in uniform. An individual with an avowed opposition to religion itself cannot fulfill the mission and duties of a chaplain, no matter how accomplished the candidate may be said Reps. Lamborn and Hartzler.

"The very definition of the chaplaincy was at stake here, so I am relieved to see the Navy's response," Rep. Lamborn said. "Appointing a secular-humanist or atheist chaplain would have gone against everything the chaplaincy was created to do. I applaud the Navy for upholding a traditional definition of the chaplaincy, which has been repeatedly confirmed by Congress and the DOD. The installment of an atheist chaplain would inevitably open the door to a host of chaplains representing many other philosophical worldviews, thus eroding the distinct religious function of the chaplain corps to the detriment of service members."

"The chaplaincy is older than our country and was instituted by General Washington to meet the religious needs of his troops," Rep. Hartzler added. "This historic institution serves a vital purpose for today's service members, ensuring the free exercise of religion for our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. I am pleased to hear that Navy has upheld the integrity of the chaplaincy."

The controversy started when Dr. Jason Heap sued back in 2015 to be admitted to the chaplaincy, “The purpose of the chaplaincy is to provide religious ministry… Atheists, militant atheists, they have the same right to be in the military as everyone else and we defend that,” said Eric Baxter, senior counsel with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “But that doesn’t mean they are qualified to serve in every position in the military, and especially as people who mock and reject and ridicule religion, they’re not qualified to provide religious ministry.”

“They want to define religion so broadly that, in their words, it includes anything that ‘contributes to human fulfillment,’” Baxter said, arguing that under such a scenario almost any activity could qualify as religious. “If the establishment clause and the free exercise clause are to mean anything, you have to defend the definition of religion.”

Fortunately, principled limited government constitutional conservative Rep. Doug Lamborn (CO-5), a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee, stepped up to oppose this travesty.

Rep. Lamborn, along with Rep. Vicki Hartzler circulated a letter to Members of Congress urging them to sign a letter to the Navy demanding that the service act to ensure the application and endorsement process is being followed with the utmost respect to law and precedent.

The letter read in part:

It has come to our attention that the Navy Chaplain Appointment and Retention Eligibility Advisory group is recommending Dr. Jason Heap to serve as a secular-humanist chaplain in the Navy. However, the chaplaincy was designed to facilitate the exercise of religious belief, not philosophical belief.

The Supreme Court has stated that non-religious beliefs, “however virtuous and admirable” may not rely on the Religion Clauses for protection. Language in both the 2014 and 2016 NDAA have underscored the religious qualifications of a chaplain when serving, and the House has twice declined to affirmatively expand the role of the chaplain corps beyond the realm of its designed religious purpose. 

The military has the authority to determine unmet needs of humanist and philosophically atheist service members and to create programs that respond to those determined needs. However, the chaplain corps is not the appropriate place to accomplish this. While DoD has recognized chaplains for religious groups that are non-theist (for example, the Buddhist Churches of America is non-theistic, but does believe in a transcendent reality, which is a religious belief), it has not extended the chaplaincy to philosophical belief. The distinction between the two has already been drawn by federal courts, and it is the line that DoD must draw as well.

Without a belief in the transcendent, and with an avowed opposition to religion itself, an individual cannot fulfill the mission and duties of a chaplain, no matter how accomplished the candidate may be.

The letter garnered forty-three signatures and was a significant influence on the Navy’s decision to reject atheist Jason Heap’s application.

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