Friday, July 26, 2013

House Debates Atheist/ Humanist Chaplains In Defense Appropriations Bill

On July 23, the House of Representatives, by a vote of 253-173, approved an amendment to HR 2397, the 2014 Department of Defense Appropriations Act, requiring that all military chaplains must receive an endorsement from a qualified religious organization.  The amendment, introduced by Rep. Fleming of Louisiana, provides:
None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to appoint chaplains for the military departments in contravention of Department of Defense Instruction 1304.28, ....
The amendment generated an interesting debate (full text). Here are some excerpts:
  Mr. FLEMING....   My amendment is fairly simple. The DOD is permitted to appoint military chaplains--individuals who minister to the spiritual needs of any and all members of the armed services--in accordance with the current DOD policy. Chaplains must possess appropriate educational credentials, 2 years of religious leadership experience, and, more importantly, must receive an endorsement from a qualified religious organization attesting to the tenets of the endorser's faith.
 In June, the Members of this body--Democrats and Republicans alike--twice affirmed that the military is not permitted to appoint atheist chaplains. Despite these recent votes and by completely bypassing Congress--the voice of the people--and current DOD standards, it has been confirmed that the military is considering the possibility of appointing an atheist chaplain. Since the formation of the chaplaincy in 1775, chaplains have been affiliated with faith and spirituality. By definition, chaplains minister to the spiritual needs of our men and women in the armed services--a vital function that an individual without any inclination towards spirituality would not be able to perform....
     Mr. POLIS. [Colorado]. Mr. Chairman, I rise in opposition to the Fleming amendment.
I think there is a basic misunderstanding here about the needs of people who lack a particular faith tradition. I would also point out that we already ordain nontheistic chaplains in our military, including Buddhists, which is a nontheistic faith. Some Unitarians may also have a nontheistic faith tradition. However, over 20 percent of the members of our military identify as nonbelievers. While, of course, their needs should be catered to by members of the chaplaincy from diverse faiths, it's only fair to have their humanism, or outlooks, represented....
Now, to be clear, the military has not announced plans to move forward with ordaining humanist chaplains; but what this amendment does is to lock in place a 2004 rule, placing it in statute and preventing the military, even if they feel the need should arise for the good of the chaplaincy, from having the flexibility they need to appoint humanist chaplains....
Mr. BRIDENSTINE....  My constituents back in Oklahoma are shaking their heads. The secular left is so invested in ripping God from everything that I must stand here with my friend Dr. Fleming in order to prohibit Obama's Department of Defense from establishing an oxymoron--atheist chaplains....
   Mr. POLIS....  Increasingly, there are seminaries who prepare humanist chaplains for ordination and work in the field, in hospitals, in universities, and again in the militaries that have them. I personally hope that this is a direction that our military considers in the future....
   Mr. FLEMING. Mr. Chairman, first of all, with all due respect to my good friend from Colorado, there is no way that an atheist chaplain or atheist whatever can minister to the spiritual needs of a Christian or a Muslim, or a Jew, for that matter....
   In the final analysis, I believe that an atheist chaplain would be the last person in the world that we would want for a dying soldier who needs that last moment of counseling in their life.
Huffington Post, reporting on the amendment, suggests that the actual language of the amendment will not prevent appointment of humanist chaplains:
Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, points out that military regulations already require that chaplains be endorsed — and not necessarily by an organization of believers in a divinity.
“The language (of the amendment) only requires adherence to the applicable instruction, which in no way restricts chaplains to only those who believe in some higher power,” he said. “Their amendment does nothing, so there’s nothing to be done in response. It just shows their ignorance about atheists, humanists, and military regulations.”
As reported by Christian Fighter Pilot blog, the House twice voted down an earlier amendment by Rep. Polis that would have specifically authorized appointment of chaplains  endorsed by non-theistic organizations.

On July 24, the House passed the full Appropriations bill by a vote of 315- 109 and sent it to the Senate for consideration.

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