The U.S. Navy turned down the application of an atheist chaplain to serve in the Navy Chaplain Corps. The move comes after 43 members of Congress signed a letter warning that the very definition of what it means to be a chaplain is at stake.
Colorado Rep. Doug Lamborn (R) and Missouri Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R) explained in a joint statement on Wednesday that the Navy made the right call in turning down the appointment of Dr. Jason Heap, the national coordinator for the United Coalition of Reason based in Washington, D.C., who first made the attempt under the Obama administration.
"The very definition of the chaplaincy was at stake here, so I am relieved to see the Navy's response," Lamborn said.
"Appointing a secular-humanist or atheist chaplain would have gone against everything the chaplaincy was created to do. I applaud the Navy for upholding a traditional definition of the chaplaincy, which has been repeatedly confirmed by Congress and the Department of Defense," he added.
"The installment of an atheist chaplain would inevitably open the door to a host of chaplains representing many other philosophical worldviews, thus eroding the distinct religious function of the chaplain corps to the detriment of service members."
Hartzler pointed out that the chaplaincy "is older than our country and was instituted by General Washington to meet the religious needs of his troops."
"This historic institution serves a vital purpose for today's service members, ensuring the free exercise of religion for our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. I am pleased to hear that Navy has upheld the integrity of the chaplaincy," she said.
Over three dozen members of Congress had warned in their letter that if the chaplaincy were to be expanded to philosophical beliefs, rather than only religious faith, it would "not only undermine the very constitutional purpose of the chaplaincy," but it would create many additional application and administrative questions.
"Marxism, for example, is a philosophy that takes a position on religious issues, but is not itself a religious worldview," they noted.
"Allowing Dr. Heap to act as a chaplain would thus open the door to a host of chaplains representing many other philosophical worldviews, complicating the chaplaincy application process, and, over time, eroding the distinct religious function of the corps to the detriment of service members."
In an article in TheHumanist.com in March 2015, Heap argued that atheist chaplains are not an "oxymoron."
"Most English dictionaries recognize that, traditionally, a chaplain was equated with a religious minister who was attached to a secular institutional setting, though some dictionaries are slow and perhaps loathe to accept the inevitable sociolinguistic evolution of how context changes definitions," he argued at the time.
"The greater and more diversified work of nontheistic chaplains across the United States as well as around the world challenges the notion of any one particular, sincerely held belief having a monopoly on morality."
Conservative group Family Research Council said atheists should find other ways to serve rather than through the Chaplain Corps.
FRC President Tony Perkins wrote in a statement on Tuesday: "If the military wants to create specific programs for atheists or humanists, it can. There's no need to hijack the Chaplain Corps to serve them — unless, as I suspect, the real goal had nothing to do with service to begin with. Either way, we salute the Navy for protecting the integrity of the chaplaincy, 'For God and Country.'"