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Should an Atheist Become a Military Chaplain?

The BecketFund for religious liberty

A Message from the Executive Director
Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Dear Friends,

As July 4 approaches, I think of all those who have made our freedom possible. This July 4th I am especially thankful for the work of the Chaplaincy as they celebrate their 240th anniversary later this month.

The work of the Chaplaincy has had personal significance to me. The first time my husband deployed he explained that should anything happen, the chaplain would come to notify me. For many months after his deployment I dreaded seeing any car I did not recognize approach our small cul de sac. I lived in fear of that visit.

The in-person chaplain visit never came to me. But it came to several of our friends. It came to our friends whose 19-year-old son was killed in action. His mother was not allowed to see her son’s remains, so when the casket arrived, she lay under the table that held it. She explained to me she did this because her son was still growing when he left for deployment, so she was unsure how tall he was when he died. Another friend of ours came back to find divorce papers. He took his own life by hanging himself over a nearby bridge. Another suffered a car accident during deployment. He was in terrific shape—he had run the Marine Corps marathon with my husband—so he was shipped home. He died a few months later of an aneurysm while flipping burgers at his church’s picnic. It was the chaplain who was always present while our friends grieved in unimaginable ways.

Anyone associated with the military has a deep respect for the job the chaplain performs. And a deep appreciation of what religious belief can mean to those serving and to their families.

It is particularly repugnant to me that the militant atheists of the Humanist Society, part of the American Humanist Association, recently argued in court that they deserve to be called a religious organization and have their own chaplain. These are the same people that are being defended by an organization that has called the chaplains, among other things, “spiritual rapists.”

Are there patriotic atheists? Absolutely. Should they be able to serve in the military? Of course—no one is arguing otherwise. Instead we see militant atheists who have devoted themselves to mocking religious belief, who have launched campaigns against believing teenagers by making fun of their “imaginary friends,” now pushing to taint the work of the chaplaincy. What do they plan to say to soldiers dying on the battlefield? What hope do they plan to give believers?

Since we were created over 20 years ago, we at Becket have been defending both the religious liberty of service members and the ability for chaplains to serve our military.

Over 20 years ago, when we litigated and won our first military chaplain case, Rigdon v. Perry, we protected the rights of preachers to speak freely about moral matters from the pulpit.

We are now defending religious liberty in the military on two fronts. On one hand, we are fighting to make sure that the Navy is not forced into offering one of the few chaplaincy spots to atheists who mock religious belief.

On the other, we are fighting so religious service members are able to serve. Two weeks ago a district court agreed with us when it ruled that if the military can grant hundreds of thousands of exemptions to its uniform policy, including Mickey Mouse vampire tattoos, it has to allow a Sikh college student to join his ROTC unit without having to cut his hair or remove his turban.

As our friends at the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty stated in their statement praising the court decision: “Protecting religious liberty is a crucial source of our nation’s military strength.”

I wish I could say that the days when I feared that car pulling up to my house are long gone. As my college-bound daughter joins her NROTC unit, I will once again begin to wonder at cars I do not recognize. I am glad that our work at Becket allows me to fight on a different front—one where religious service members can serve and one in which the chaplaincy remains a source of strength and hope for those who, like my family, believe in the transcendent.


Kristina Arriaga
Executive Director

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