House votes to block DOD from hiring nonreligious chaplains

The House late Tuesday night passed a Republican proposal that would prevent the Department of Defense from adding nonreligious chaplains to the military's chaplain corps.

Members passed the GOP amendment in a 253-173 vote. That vote attached it to the 2014 Defense spending bill, H.R. 2397.

Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) brought up the language in response to reports that the DOD is considering the addition of atheist chaplains, which he and other Republicans said would be an oxymoron.

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"By definition, chaplains minister to the spiritual needs of our men and women in the armed services, a vital function that an individual without any inclination towards spirituality would not be able to perform," Fleming said.

Democrats argued in favor of adding atheist or "humanistic" chaplains and said they are needed to provide counseling to nonreligious members of the military who seek counseling.

"Over 20 percent of the members of our military identify as nonbelievers, and while of course their needs should be catered to by members of the chaplaincy from diverse faiths, it is only fair to have their humanism or outlook represented," said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.).

Polis has said before that sending nonreligious people to psychiatrists or doctors for counseling carries a stigma. Tuesday night, he said nonreligious members of the military "wrestle with those same existential questions as those of us with faith."

But Republicans said the proposal makes no sense, as people who don't believe in God wouldn't seek spiritual counseling anyway. Some accused Democrats of seeking nonreligious chaplains as a way to take God out of everything, even military religious officers.

"My constituents back in Oklahoma are shaking their heads," said Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.). "The secular left is so invested in ripping God from everything that I must stand here with my friend Dr. Fleming to prohibit Obama's Department of Defense from establishing an oxymoron  — atheist chaplains.

"Why does the secular left insist on ruining the integrity of the chaplaincy to serve their agenda of institutionalized godlessness?"

Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) said opponents of Fleming's language are not seeking godlessness in the military but more choices for all service members.

"It is wrong to say to a soldier who comes from such a tradition that he or she, if they have an issue on which they're troubled, must go to a mental health professional in order to receive counseling, rather than someone who comes from their philosophical faith or tradition," he said.

Fleming ended the debate by saying an atheist chaplain is the "last person in the world" that a dying soldier should meet with when they need "that last moment of counseling in their life."

Back in June, Polis proposed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would allow the DOD to hire nonreligious chaplains. The House rejected that proposal 150-274.