Religious prejudice torpedoes Navy chaplain

By Ken Burrows

In March this year, a chaplain with a master’s degree from a Texas Christian University Divinity School and a theological history degree from Oxford University was refused an appointment as U.S. Navy Chaplain, despite the fact that a Navy Chaplain Advisory Board had initially approved the appointment. Why the rejection? A key factor appears to have been pressure from 22 U.S. Senators and 45 members of the U.S. House who claimed chaplain Jason Heap was not religious enough because he is a humanist.

In that same month a U.S. District Court ordered North Carolina’s prison administration to allow humanist chaplains and programs for inmates, which prison officials had routinely always denied. The court there said a policy of accommodating religious faiths, but not humanism, in inmate programs was “arbitrary” and fostered “an excessive government entanglement with religion.” The court called that “an Establishment Clause violation.”

Theoretically, lawmakers’ formal actions should comport to constitutional principles, and judges’ reasoning should as well. So how did these two decision-making processes lead to such different evaluations about how humanism is to be treated?

Prejudices at work

The 45 U.S. House members expressed their opposition to a humanist Navy chaplain via a letter to the Chief of Navy Chaplains in a move orchestrated largely by Congressman Doug Lamborn (R-CO). (The 22 senators opposed to Heap

drafted a letter with similar sentiments.) The anti-Heap letter by House members argued the chaplain corps has a “uniquely religious purpose” that allows no role for a non-religious chaplain. The letter made no mention of the fact that several non-theistic chaplains already serve in the military, assisting service members of widely varied faiths and secular beliefs. Or the fact that Heap himself stated his focus as chaplain would be the well-being of anyone needing pastoral care, and he would minister to “all members of the service…accepting them for who they are.” Instead of recognizing this ecumenist commitment by Heap, the letter alleged, without offering any evidence, that he has “an avowed opposition to religion.”

In short, the House members opposing Heap based their exclusion argument not on constitutional principles but rather on a prejudice against Heap. Specifically the allegation that a humanist is, ipso facto, hostile to religion and thus cannot fulfill the religious duties the chaplaincy entails.

Biases struck down

By contrast, the court in North Carolina turned to constitutional principles in deciding its case. The court referred to what’s known as the Lemon test, named for the 1971 Lemon v. Kurtzman decision. “For government conduct to survive review under [this] three-part test,” the North Carolina court said, it must “first have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; [and] finally, the statute must not foster, ‘an excessive government entanglement with religion.’” The court said a violation of even one prong of this Lemon test results in a violation of the Establishment Clause. It went on to explain why the existing prison policy in North Carolina violated all three prongs. The court further noted that “prison officials expressed skepticism and bias toward humanism because it did not have a ‘religious tone’ and its members ‘did not believe in a deity’ (describing humanism as a ‘weird faith’ during a committee meeting).”

Prison officials had essentially done what Heap-opposing congressmen did: Extend their prejudices against humanism to formal actions denying humanism the fair and equal treatment it was due. Fortunately, the court could overrule this bias in North Carolina prisons. But no court could pass judgment on the House members’ letter against Heap, even though its arguments sprang from similar prejudices.

Straw men debunked

Actually the anti-Heap letter did not completely ignore constitutional factors, but it used them to create false fears. It stated that service members have a “constitutional right” to free exercise of religion and that the military “bears a constitutional obligation” to ensure that service members’ religious needs are met. Apparently the intended inference to be drawn is that appointing a humanist chaplain would somehow contravene these two assurances. But in fact it would not. By his own statements on inclusiveness, Heap would clearly not impede free exercise of religion and would do whatever is necessary to see that service members’ religious needs are met. Other military chaplains echo this assurance, as shown below.

As for the alleged hostility humanists have toward religion, the letter exhibits uninformed prejudice on this as well. Consider the Humanist Manifesto of the American Humanist Association (AHA). Nowhere in its philosophical stances will one find language antagonistic to religion. Lloyd Morain, a former president of the AHA, confirmed this non-hostility in his book Humanism as the Next Step. In this book he notes that, indeed, some humanists go to church, and some find inspiration in scriptures and religious texts and hold them in high regard. He goes so far as to say an evangelical Christian and a humanist often share similar goals, though the philosophical underpinnings are different.

Practicalities ignored

With prejudices reigning, House members opposing Heap hardly considered practical realities involved in his suitability to serve as Navy chaplain. Such as the fact that the number of non-believers in the military has tripled in the last 10 years. Or the fact that the Department of Defense (DoD) recently expanded its list of recognized religions and beliefs to more than 200, including humanism among them.

Here the letter tried leveraging semantics, saying the DoD did not extend the chaplaincy to “philosophical belief” and made room for non-theistic groups (e.g., Buddhist) only if they believe in a “transcendent reality, which is a religious belief.” But “transcendent” simply means beyond ordinary limits or outside of consciousness, neither of which necessarily equates to religious belief. Neuroscientist Sam Harris, known for his criticisms of religion, states in his 2014 book Waking Up that “The human mind does, in fact, contain vast expanses that few of us ever discover,” and “altered states of consciousness are empirical facts.” But, he says, human beings having such transcendent experiences do not constitute definitive evidence of religious belief.

A former Navy chaplain who testified at a 2014 congressional hearing, Rabbi Bruce Kahn, estimated that

over 95 percent of the service members he served were not of his faith, with some being agnostics and atheists. As quoted in Church & State magazine (published by Americans United for Separation of Church and State [AU]), Rabbi Kahn said Navy chaplains “assist each person in [the] command to reach a more complete state of being based on the beliefs, values and practices that individual affirms. A Navy chaplain serves all by meeting them where they are.” Church & State noted that Heap mirrored this when he explained that humanist chaplains “are openly prepared and equipped to minister to all members of the services…accepting them for who they are, with no reservation.”

Claire Hillan, a lawyer at AU who is also a military family member, said a chaplain’s responsibilities obviously include traditional religious components, but they also include assistance and counseling for all service members, regardless of beliefs. “Members are encouraged to visit with chaplains for help with a wide range of personal struggles, often secular in nature,” Hillan said, including counseling for issues that may arise with deployment, suicidal thoughts, grief, and others. “Diversity in the chaplaincy is important because it tells service members of minority belief systems that there’s a place for them.”

Government should be neutral

The Heap opposers mentioned none of this, ignoring evolving diversity in the military and insisting that a chaplain must be, literally, “religious,” because that’s how the chaplaincy originated some 240 years ago. Their letter opposing Heap insisted that without religious belief, “an individual cannot fulfill the mission and duties of a chaplain,” and the chaplaincy’s religious component “is core to its identity.” Therefore it “requires a person who’s highly qualified in religious ministry.” It apparently mattered not that Heap’s background, with a divinity degree and a master’s degree in religion, gives him a deep, scholarly knowledge and understanding of world religions.

Obviously missing the irony, Heap opposers lauded the chaplain corps for serving all armed forces personnel “without regard to religious preference or belief.” Their letter praised “the commitment of the chaplain corps to diversity.” All the while they advocated exactly the opposite by demanding bias-based limits on who can serve as a chaplain.

As already noted, the constitutional and court references in the anti-Heap letter failed to provide a basis for excluding humanist chaplains. At the same time, though, the letter embraced a decidedly unconstitutional move by asking the government to show religious preference. For 50 years, courts have repeatedly cited a stipulation in the Supreme Court’s Epperson vs. Arkansas ruling that stated: “The First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and nonreligion.” The anti-Heap letter flies in the face of that dictum.


Congressman Lamborn has gone so far as to say that appointing a humanist chaplain for the Navy would be “an offense to the millions of religious Americans bravely serving our country.” By that logic, appointing religious chaplains is an offense to secular Americans, also bravely serving. In point of fact, there need be no offense either way if the chaplain is qualified and committed to serving all inclusively and respectfully. What’s offensive is a group of politicians unfairly maligning such a chaplain and opposing his appointment simply because he does not match their definition of being religious enough.

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