As a military family member, Americans United lawyer Claire L. Hillan understands that military chaplains serve an important role in the lives of all service members and their families regardless of their beliefs. That's why when the U.S. Navy recently refused to appoint its first Humanist chaplain, Hillan spoke out.
"I think a lot of people outside the military might not understand the role that military chaplains play and how a Humanist chaplain can carry out those duties," Hillan explained in a March 22 "Wall of Separation" blog post.
But it was not meant to be. After an uproar from the Religious Right and conservative lawmakers, it was reported that the application of Jason Heap, a Humanist chaplain, was rejected, even after the Navy Chaplain Appointment and Retention Eligibility Advisory Board had given its initial OK.
Heap meets all the qualifications to serve as a chaplain. He holds a master's degree from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University and a theological history degree from Oxford University. Even so, the Navy felt some heat from Congress and rejected his application. A group of 22 U.S. senators and 45 members of the House of Representatives each sent letters to the Navy's leadership opposing Heap. This is the second time the Navy has rejected his application.
While government-supported religious leaders may seem out of place in a nation that separates church and state, military chaplains have a long history in the American military. They accompanied soldiers during the Revolutionary War, and in 1791, Congress authorized the appointment of a commissioned Army chaplain.
Today, chaplains have an important role to play. The men and women serving in the armed forces are often stationed far from home, including on ships, in foreign countries and in war zones, where they lack access to their houses of worship. But chaplains are there with them to provide religious counsel, allowing service members and their families to worship wherever they are based in any military anywhere in the world.
Chaplains not only serve as religious leaders for members of their own faith, they also assist service members and families of different faiths and beliefs. For instance, chaplains provide hymnals, prayer books and study guides, arrange places to meet, conduct services themselves or find others who can.
But those are just some of a chaplain's responsibilities. They also provide vital assistance and counseling to all service members and their families. As Hillan, once a cadet in the Reserve Officer Training Corps and now an Air Force spouse, explained, "A chaplain is a...