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Rejection doesn't stop campaign to become military's first humanist chaplain

WASHINGTON — A Navy chaplain candidate who believes people can pursue “good without a god” said the recent rejection of his application wouldn’t stop his campaign to become the military’s first humanist chaplain.

Jason Heap, an atheist who holds master’s degrees in divinity and religious history, applied for a commission as a chaplain in July 2013 and learned in late May that he’d been turned down.

“I am exceptionally disappointed and aggrieved by the Navy’s initial rejection of my application,” he said in a written statement. “I will continue to seek acceptance. I hope military leaders will open their hearts to humanists and give me the opportunity to serve all sailors as a chaplain for the next 20 years or more.”

The Navy offered no explanation for the decision by the Navy Chaplain Accession board, but said in a written statement that Heap wasn’t alone — most of the recent chaplain hopefuls were turned away.

“Due to the highly competitive nature of the board, less than 50 percent of the applicants could be recommended for a commission in the United States Navy,” said Lt. Hayley C. Sims, a spokeswoman for the Chief of Navy Personnel. “Each applicant was considered without prejudice or partiality — specific details of individual applications or the deliberation process are not releasable.”

Heap’s candidacy was sponsored by the Humanist Society, a nontheistic group that espouses ethical living and striving for the greater good of humanity without theistic or supernatural beliefs.

In April, the Army approved a request by Maj. Ray Bradley to list humanism as his religious preference — the first time such a designation has been allowed.

Although the Navy hasn’t explained its decision, Jason Torpy, the “endorsing agent” for the Humanist Society, says it smacks of discrimination.

“They only support a certain subset of beliefs,” Torpy said. “That’s the message that I’m getting as a non-theist and that a lot of non-theists are getting.”

In addition to overseeing chaplain candidates for the organization, Torpy also runs his own group known as the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.

Torpy said the Humanist Society is supporting Heap as he explores administrative options to revive the his chaplain candidacy.

Despite not having traditional religious beliefs, large numbers of nonbelieving troops are still striving to live ethical and meaningful lives, and Heap could support them as a chaplain, Torpy said. And with his deep knowledge of other religions, Heap — who grew up Christian — is able to help all servicemembers, Torpy said.

Although not religious, Heap told Stars and Stripes last year he has a deep respect for the religious impulse.

“Religion is existential. It’s where people begin to think about, ‘Is there more to life than just me?’” he said. “It’s one of the most special utterings of human aspiration, desire, fear. It’s people trying to come to grips with the natural order of life.”

But critics say the chaplaincy is specifically designed to support servicemembers seeking to practice religious beliefs, not various philosophies of living.

“The key word there is belief, and the Navy is affirming that chaplains must be persons of faith,” said Ron Crews, a retired Army chaplain and executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty.

Through chaplains, the U.S. military works to support religious rights for members of a wide variety of religions, Crews said, some of which lack their own chaplains.

“There are many different expressions of belief represented in the military that do not have chaplain corps representations, such as Wiccans at this point,” he said. “However chaplains will provide for those who want to form a group. ... The same would be true for those who come from an atheist freethinker associations. If they want to form and meet, chaplains will be there to provide resources.”

That hasn’t been the case in the Navy, Torpy said. If officials had turned down Heap’s application but followed up with offers to provide more support to humanist groups, the decision would have been seen in a different light, he said.

“The important part of this is that the Navy has done no outreach,” he said. “There’s been no interest, no cooperation with humanist beliefs.”

carroll.chris@stripes.com
Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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