WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives approved an amendment this week that reinforces the military’s current ban on atheist chaplains.
The amendment, which passed 23 to 173, was attached to the 2014 Department of Defense Appropriations Bill, and was introduced by Louisiana Senator John Fleming.
“The notion of an atheist chaplain is nonsensical; it’s an oxymoron,” Fleming wrote in a news release on Wednesday. “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.”
He noted that the role of chaplain is historical and was established with a religious purpose.
“Since General George Washington instituted the military chaplaincy, chaplains have served a vital role in serving the spiritual needs of our Armed Forces,” Fleming outlined. “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.”
However, the Times-Picayune reports that some legislators disagreed with Fleming.
“It is wrong to say to a solider who comes from [an atheist] tradition, that he or she, if they have an issue on which they’re troubled, must go to a mental health professional in order to receive counseling, rather than someone who comes from their philosophical faith or tradition,” stated Representative Rob Andrews, D-NJ.
The vote comes at a time when 38-year-old Jason Heap is making headlines for his pursuit of becoming an atheist chaplain in the United States Navy.
“I want to use my skills on behalf of our people in the service,” he told reporters. “Hopefully, the Navy will see where I can be useful.”
As previously reported, Heap asserts that because he is endorsed by the Humanist Society, he should be offered the chaplain position. However, the Navy does not recognize the Humanist Society as an endorsing agent. In order to be accepted as a Navy chaplain, all applicants must receive endorsements from religious organizations approved by the military.
According to the Department of Defense website, this list of “ecclesiastical endorsing agents” includes representatives from over 200 different denominations and organizations. Although the majority of agents would be considered Christian, several other religions are included, such as Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and Unitarianism.
Fleming contends that the demand for atheist counsel is very small.
“Opponents of my amendment make vastly exaggerated claims about the religious demographics of the military,” he stated. “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.”
The amendment must now be considered in the Senate, and a vote could take place at any time.