Navy Rejection of Humanist Chaplains Demeans and Discriminates, Call for a Ban is Unconstitutional

For Immediate Release: March 21, 2018
Contact: Paul Fidalgo, Communications Director - (207) 358-9785

The U.S. Navy’s refusal to appoint a humanist as a chaplain, spurred in part by a letter from 23 Senators calling on U.S. Navy leadership to ban humanist chaplains, demeans the nonreligious men and women bravely serving in our armed forces, said the Center for Inquiry. This is according to Sen. Roger Wicker who announced the news on his website.

The Senators’ letter, which urges Navy Secretary Richard Spencer and Admiral John Richardson to unconstitutionally privilege religious candidates for a military position, follows a similar letter sent by members of the House to the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations and the Chief of Chaplains of the Navy. “This repudiation of humanists serving as chaplains is a disservice to the large and rising number of non-religious Americans who volunteer to serve in the Armed Forces,” said Nick Little, CFI’s Vice President and General Counsel. “These lawmakers should know better, and the Navy leadership must reconsider their decision.” 

The Senators describe appointing a secular humanist as “a grave mistake … inconsistent with the Constitution.” CFI’s Little explained that the Senators are simply wrong. “The constitutional violation occurs when an individual is denied a government appointed position based on his or her religion or absence thereof, or when non-believing service personnel are refused the same level of services as their religious fellow service members.”

As the number of religiously unaffiliated climbs rapidly in the United States, especially among younger Americans, the demand for secular humanist chaplains has risen. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2014 nearly 23% of Americans did not hold a religious affiliation.

“U.S. military chaplains provide important nonreligious services to every service member without regard for their individual beliefs,” noted Jason Lemieux, CFI’s Director of Government Affairs and a former U.S. Marine and combat veteran. “Chaplains deliver mandatory pre- and post-deployment counseling, take a major role in suicide prevention programs, provide spiritual referrals, and act as a compassionate sounding board to every member of their assigned military unit. A secular humanist would meet this responsibility on the same ground as any other chaplain.

“To ban secular humanists from the Chaplain Corps is cruel and disrespectful to the growing share of nonreligious Americans who serve our country, and who rely on their chaplain for aid and comfort without regard for their nonbelief. It also shows contempt for the First Amendment principle that the government shall neither favor one religion over another, nor religions over the absence of religion.”

CFI submitted an amicus brief supporting a legal challenge seeking to require the U.S. military to permit a secular humanist chaplain to serve. The organization is committed to ending discrimination against the non-religious throughout society.

“What these Senators and Representatives suggest,” said Robyn Blumner, CFI’s President and CEO, “is that secular humanists and atheists don’t deserve the same respect and support system in our military as religious believers. It would be inconceivable for sitting members of Congress to sign a letter claiming that appointing Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu chaplains was ‘a grave mistake.’ It is equally appalling for them to make the same claim about secular humanists and atheists.”

“Even more disappointing is the fact that the U.S. Navy seems to agree,” said Blumner. “This wrongheaded attitude must change.” 

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The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at