Would-be atheist chaplain files suit over Navy's rejection of application
WASHINGTON — An atheist Navy chaplain candidate is going to court over the service’s rejection of his application.
Religion scholar and former youth minister Jason Heap filed suit Wednesday along with the organization backing him, the Humanist Society, alleging that the military unfairly rejected him earlier this year because he doesn’t believe in a deity, according to a news release issued late Wednesday from the Washington-based humanist organization.
The lawsuit, which the release says was filed in the U.S. District Court of the eastern District of Virginia, names Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and a number of other Defense Department and Navy personnel, including the current and former top Navy chaplains.
In addition to asking the court to recognize that Heap’s religious rights were violated, it asks for his instatement as a Navy chaplain and the designation of the Humanist Society as the official endorsing agent for humanist chaplains.
Heap applied to become a chaplain in July 2013 and learned the following June that the Navy had declined his application without explanation.
According to the filing, Navy officials were eager to enroll a chaplain with Heap’s educational background, which includes degrees from Texas Christian University and Oxford University. But when they discovered he was seeking to enter the chaplaincy as a humanist who believes in a system of ethics unrelated to a god or supernatural beliefs, his application went off track amid political protests from those who insist chaplains must follow traditional religions, the suit alleges.
Heap’s opponents ridicule the idea of an atheist military chaplain. “The notion of an atheist chaplain is nonsensical; it’s an oxymoron,” said Rep. John Fleming, R-La., sponsor of a 2013 amendment to block atheist chaplains.
But supporters say that humanist beliefs are constitutionally equal to religious faith and that chaplains are key contacts for troops on a variety of personnel and quality-of-life matters, ranging from recreational activities to suicide prevention programs. They’re also among the only counselors who can speak to troops confidentially.
According to the lawsuit, 3.6 percent of the military identify themselves as humanists.
“As a result of the Navy’s decision to deny Dr. Heap’s application, there are no Humanist chaplains in the U.S. Navy or in any branch of the armed services,” the lawsuit said. “The absence of even a single Humanist chaplain impairs the religious exercise of Humanists in the Navy.”