Suit Over Rejection of Humanist Chaplain Allowed to Move Forward

Suit Over Rejection of Humanist Chaplain Allowed to Move Forward July 6, 2015

You may recall that a couple years ago, Jason Heap applied to be the Navy’s first humanist chaplain and was denied. He and the Humanist Society filed a lawsuit over that. A federal judge in Virginia has now denied most of a motion to dismiss by the federal government, allowing the suit to move forward on several grounds.

Howard Friedman sums up the ruling:

In a 75-page opinion, a Virginia federal district court ultimately allowed Dr. Heap to move ahead with his Establishment Clause and Equal Protection/ Substantive Due Process challenges to the Navy and Department of Defense’s actions. However the court dismissed challenges brought under other parts of the 1st Amendment, the No Religious Test clause, and RFRA, dismissed The Humanist Society as a plaintiff for lack of standing and on ripeness grounds, and dismissed claims against the individual defendants.

The Establishment Clause and Equal Protection/Substantive Due Process claims in the original complaint are the most important grounds for the suit, the rest doesn’t particularly matter. So the suit will now go into the discovery and trial phase.

One of the interesting aspects of the case is that when Heap applied for the position, the initial officers who handled the application, one an evangelical Christian and the other Jewish, strongly endorsed him and recommended that he be made a chaplain. Lt. Joel DeGraeve even said that the Evangelical Christian Alliance, his own sponsor, would be willing to sponsor him as a chaplain. Lt. Commander Rabbi Reuben Israel Abraham gave Heap a perfect rating in his assessment of whether he should be given a commission as a chaplain.

At that point, a bunch of Republican members of Congress wrote a letter to the Pentagon demanding that they prevent the establishment of a humanist chaplaincy and brought political pressure to bear to make that happen. They even submitted legislation to forbid the military from doing so. Heap’s application was subsequently denied, but with no explanation as to why. The Obama administration and the civilian leadership at the Pentagon allowed this to happen without a word of protest.

Here’s the judge’s ruling on the motion to dismiss:

Heap v Carter by Howard Friedman

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