DoD’s top chaplains finally discussed letting atheists meet on post

After years of trying to get the military to formally recognize and support atheist groups equally, an answer may be forthcoming. It’s a no-brainer from a legal standpoint. Establishment Clause, EEO, Limited Public Forum… pick your poison. Unfortunately, it really could go either way – potentially begging a massive lawsuit.

I have it on good authority that after over a year of stalling, the Armed Forces Chaplains Board finally discussed the issue. It’s still not even clear if they’ve made a final decision.  The chaplaincy’s entire legal justification for existing depends upon the notion that they are indeed ‘advocates for everyone’.

Chaplains are advocates for everyone

Screenshot from the MANDATORY Spiritual Fitness testing and training… I guess we’re about to find out if it’s true.

No individual chaplain needs to be an atheist in any manner. No Christian chaplain is expected to perform Muslim prayer, and all the atheists want is to have a volunteer lay-leader that chaplains can simply point to or direct phone calls. This is what the Wiccans currently do, as they have no Wiccan chaplains, but are meeting on many bases with chaplain endorsement.

The last snag in the path to finally being allowed to meet on post in a meaningful way was the path to establishing a chaplain-endorsed ‘atheist Lay Leader’, or Distinctive Faith Group Leader (DFGL). Until they finally stamp ‘yes’ on one of our packets, we are forbidden from meeting anywhere on any posts by chaplain regulations.

At Fort Bragg, I’ve been specifically warned not to meet on post, even near a gazebo or even behind some dumpster! All because of one obscure sentence in the Army Regulations that guide the Chaplaincy.

DFGLs will not conduct services before approval by the IMCOM or MEDCOM Command Chaplains.” – AR 165-1

I was the first to attempt this strategy, and they dismissed my massive packet (with glowing recommendations from several chaplains and all of my commanders and supervisors, and even Fort Bragg’s most powerful chaplain, the Garrison Chaplain). A 2 star general who had no requirement to submit anything took it upon himself to submit this letter:

I first saw this right after I got back from my last deployment – sometime in early December. They had been sitting on since April, stringing me along as I kept inquiring for status updates. I’m not really able to say much more about how I feel about this. Read my book in 20 years, I suppose.

They can’t stop us all… can they?

Maybe we’re about to find out.

In my wake, several other DFGL candidates stepped forward. The strongest of the remaining packets seem to be Maj. Ray Bradley (Fort Bragg) and Capt. Ryan Jean (Fort Meade). It would be difficult for a similar ‘nonconcur letter’ to come forth stating that company and field grade officers are too immature.

Jason Torpy over at Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers is sponsoring those DFGL packets, and I expect him to be delivering the news as soon as he gets it. Keep an eye on the MAAF website for more information.

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  • ‘Tis Himself

    “nonconcur”? Damn, newspeak is invading the Army.

    • jillian

      I don’t know about the army, but ‘non-concur’ is & has been constantly used in the USAF for a long time…at least since I came in (1987).

    • Nentuaby

      “Is invading?” Man, bureaucratic milspeak has been its own weird little language since at least WWII.

  • Ryan Jean

    “Unfortunately, it really could go either way – potentially begging a massive lawsuit.”

    Let’s be careful not to put the cart before the horse. I think at this point we’ve made it clear that we are serious about the issue and will not be ignored (and that we are not afraid of litigation when necessary). I believe that displaying our sincerity and tenaciousness is how we finally got heard, even if the results of that hearing are by no means certain.

    What I don’t want to do is preface every action with the threat — implied or explicit — of litigation. I approach this meeting with cautious optimism, sincerely hoping that the Chaplaincy will do the right thing for the right reason and not drag heels any longer. Like any good Officers, MAJ Bradley and I have our primary, alternate, and contingent courses of action mapped out, and a lawsuit through MAAF is rightfully considered the action of last resort.

    Anyway, it’s good to see some added visibility on this, and to constantly remind the service that atheists and Humanists are not some small group to be ignored. Good job spreading the word, Justin.

    • Justin Griffith

      CPT Jean,

      I’ve been holding back my own legal team just so you two could have a shot, sir. You may not intend a legal threat, but I certainly do. We may have a difference of opinion, and I’m sure if they read this your stance will be noted (perhaps even in your favor). In the ‘inter-organizational’ world of atheist activism, most organizations take care not to step on each other’s toes or to criticize strategy/tactics publicly. Gentle suggestions / thoughts like yours are certainly welcome, of course. I’m just saying there might be more to it than one organization’s perspective.

      MAAF does not have lawyers, and Jason Torpy is a wonderful ally who knows that he can count on other organizations for what he/MAAF may consider “last resort”. American Atheists has a very careful approach to litigation, AU picks its battles and fights hard, FFRF is probably a little more aggressive than others, and MRFF kicks down doors every day. So there are plenty of organizations on standby.

      Good luck, please keep us in the loop!