Chaplain Corps Services
Humanist chaplains are trained and ready to serve, but the Armed Forces continues to ignore the needs of nontheists in uniform. Meanwhile, the 5,000 chaplains serving in the Chaplain Corps are not adequately trained to ensure that nontheist service members are receiving the support they need.
One of the greatest sacrifices that any American can make is to serve in a branch of our Armed Forces. For their service, our military has an obligation to provide for all service members of every faith and no faith. Our Armed Forces are strongest when we fully support the individual service members who serve.
A crucial service provided for our soldiers are chaplains, who offer counseling in accordance with a service member’s particular religion. Unfortunately, a humanist who seeks a chaplain’s counsel cannot get access to a humanist chaplain and nonreligious service members are often not receiving equal access and support from chaplains despite the fact that chaplains, regardless of their faith tradition, are required to serve all service members.
Ensuring Access to Life-Affirming Pastoral Care for All Service Members
The military presents a unique policy case in which the government is intricately involved in the personal lives of more than one million active duty personnel and their families. Much of this involvement is spearheaded by the chaplaincy. The Chaplain Corps provides unique services related to service members’ moral formation, making meaning in life, and finding the support of a like-minded community. In addition, the Chaplain Corps contributes to the provision of other secular services including counseling, family programs, and morale building. Chaplains are in a unique position to provide confidential counseling, including for sexual assault and rape.
There are 5000 chaplains serving the Department of Defense. Unlike civilian clergy members who serve a particular congregation, U.S. military chaplains are required by the Constitution’s Establishment Clause and by statute to support all service members and their families neutrally with respect to their religious affiliation and beliefs.
Despite this requirement, there are countless anecdotal reports of chaplains refusing to provide services to nontheist service members. To properly fulfill all of their duties, including Constitutional free exercise of religion, chaplains must support ethical, values-based, authentic humanist beliefs. For over ten years, the Secular Coalition for America’s member organization, Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF), has offered to provide humanist and nonreligious training and materials to the Chaplain Corps. MAAF has made repeated requests for information regarding the Chaplain Corps’ existing training and materials, but to date the Chaplain Corps has not shared this information. Chaplains need that training to understand and guide those in their care.
No regulations need to change to make our military more supportive of its nontheists. Governing regulations of the chaplaincy, like those of the United States, recognize and require equal support for humanists, atheists, and other nontheists. However, military regulations suffer anti-atheist interpretation and misapplication.
The Secular Coalition for America and its member organization, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, calls on Congress to hold the Chaplain Corps accountable to its mission and ensure that chaplains are receiving training on providing pastoral care to a diverse military that includes many nontheists in its ranks.
Fostering an Inclusive Chaplain Corps by Recruiting Humanist Chaplains
In addition to ensuring that existing military chaplains properly serve and care for the needs of nontheists, the Department of Defense must also ensure that qualified humanists and minority religionists are able to join the ranks of the Chaplain Corps. There are humanist chaplains across the United States who meet all of the military’s requirements for service in the Chaplain Corps. Despite this fact, no branch has ever accepted a humanist in its Chaplain Corps.
Many of these humanist chaplains are ordained by the Humanist Society. The Humanist Society is legally equivalent to a Schedule A religious organization and it meets all of the military’s requirements to endorse chaplains and lay leaders for military service. In addition, there are a number of civilian chaplain professional organizations, such as the Association of Professional Chaplains, that recognize humanist chaplaincy. In the United States, our military stands apart from civilian employers in excluding humanists and humanist services.
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