Republican-Led House Approves Amendment Banning Non-Religious Military Chaplains

Last month, Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ) suggested an amendment (PDF) to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act that would allow Humanist, ethical culturist, or atheist chaplains in the Army Chaplains Corps:

Rep. Rob Andrews

The Secretary of Defense shall provide for the appointment, as officers in the Chaplain Corps of the Armed Forces, of persons who are certified or ordained by non-theistic organizations and institutions, such as humanist, ethical culturalist, or atheist.

The amendment made so much sense that, of course, Republicans were quick to condemn it:

There’s some first class ignorance for you:

They don’t believe anything,” said Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) “I can’t imagine an atheist accompanying a notification team as they go into some family’s home to let them have the worst news of their life and this guy says, ‘You know, that’s it — your son’s just worms, I mean, worm food.’”

“This I think would make a mockery of the chaplaincy,” said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.). “The last thing in the world we would want to see was a young soldier who may be dying and they’re at a field hospital and the chaplain is standing over that person saying to them, ‘If you die here, there is no hope for you in the future.’”

You can see the full debate on the issue in my previous post.

Needless to say, the amendment failed on a 43-18 vote.

After that, Rep. Fleming, who wrongly believes Humanist chaplains want to tell people “There is no hope for you in the future,” sponsored a different amendment (attached to H.R. 2397, the Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2014) that explicit forbade atheist chaplains: It prevented “funds from being used to appoint chaplains without an endorsing agency”… and since all the endorsing agencies are religious, that left out any non-religious chaplains.

Rep. John Fleming

Late last night, on a 253-173 vote, the House approved that amendment. Only two Republicans voted against it — Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) and Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AL).

Fleming doubled down on his amendment afterwards:

“It is absurd to argue that someone with no spiritual inclination should fill that role, 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,” Fleming said. “Opponents of my amendment make vastly exaggerated claims about the religious demographics of the military.”

Fleming said less than one percent of service members identify themselves 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.”

While it’s true that less than 1% of the military label themselves as atheists, more than 20% have no religious preference.

More importantly, while Christians (of all varieties) make up close to 70% of the military, they make up more than 95% of the chaplaincy.

There was no need for the House to accept an amendment that makes life even harder for non-religious troops, but I suppose that’s “compassionate conservatism” for you.

In Fleming’s mind, if he can’t understand the need for non-religious chaplains, then there must not be a need for them. Why bother with research when he can rely on his own prejudice? He and his staff should be ashamed of themselves, and so should everyone who voted for this amendment, including 26 pathetic Democrats.

The Secular Coalition for America found one point of optimism, though: It was only a month ago when Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) tried to get Rep. Andrews’ original pro-Humanist-chaplains amendment passed in the full House. At the time, the House rejected that amendment 274-150.

That means that in the span of a month, 23 more people than before came to support the idea of non-religious chaplains:

“Chaplains for nontheistic military service members are absolutely crucial for so many men and women who are serving our country,” said Edwina Rogers, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America. “Religious chaplains are ill equipped to handle the problems of nontheistic service members and unfortunately, seeking psychiatric help can stigmatize a service member for the rest of their career.”

“The vote yesterday demonstrates a fast-growing consensus in recognizing not only the importance of Humanist chaplains but equal rights for all military members regardless of religious beliefs,” Rogers said. “Our service men and women put their lives on the line to protect our rights as Americans, including our rights to believe or not to believe. The least we can do is ensure all service members receive equal treatment.”

***Update***: Jason Torpy of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers says that this amendment only reinforces the status quo, so it didn’t really do anything:

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

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.