House Rejects Chaplains for Non-religious Military Service Members

The House rejected a Democratic proposal today to allow non-religious military chaplains to serve non-religious service members. According to Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), “nearly a quarter of people serving in the military are non-religious, but under current law, spiritual advisors must be appointed by religious organizations, like the Catholic Church,” The Hill reports.

Polis’s proposed amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act would have allowed “nontheistic” organizations to appoint military chaplains to serve non-religious soldiers. “What my amendment would simply do is allow chaplains who are certified or ordained, secular humanists and ethical culturalists or atheists, to also be able to support the brave men and women who serve in our military,” Polis said.

Last week, Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ) proposed a similar amendment to the House Armed Services Committee. The idea behind both proposals is that non-religious military members in the field deserve to have an advisor or counselor to consult, just as religious service members do. And they argue that going to a mental health professional for guidance has such a stigma in the military that members would likely face discrimination for doing so.

“Going to a mental health professional is a choice that is laden with risk and some controversy for a member of the service. Going to a faith advisor is not,” Andrews said. But many Republican representatives were offended by the proposals. Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) said Andrew’s proposal would “make a mockery of the chaplaincy,” The Huffington Post reported last week.

“They don’t believe anything. I can’t imagine an atheist accompanying a notification team as they go into some family’s home to let them have the worst news of their life, and this guy says, ‘You know, that’s it – your son’s just worms, I mean, worm food,” Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX) said, completely ignoring the actual suggestion, which was to give non-religious service members in the field someone to go to for counsel, while also, conveniently, denigrating those who do not believe as he does.

Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee said that atheists and humanists do have strong belief systems, which “they value just as much as Christians value theirs,” according to The Huffington Post. “To say that an atheist or humanist doesn’t believe anything is just ignorant,” Smith said. “The response to the gentleman’s amendment makes me feel all the more the necessity of it.”

The GOP-majority House rejected Polis’s amendment today in a 150-274 vote. Republicans unanimously voted against it, along with 44 Democrats.

Alisha is a writer and researcher for Ring of Fire.

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