Rejected atheist military chaplain reportedly suing Navy

An atheist whose application to become a Navy chaplain was rejected is now reportedly taking his fight to court.

Jason Heap, a religion scholar and former youth minister, filed the lawsuit Wednesday with the help of the Humanist Society, alleging that military officials unjustly passed him over earlier this year because he doesn’t believe in traditional religion — not because he lacked qualifications, Stars and Stripes reports.

The lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., names as defendants Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and several other Department of Defense and Navy personnel, including current and former top Navy chaplains.

Citing pending litigation, Department of Defense officials declined to comment.

The lawsuit seeks Heap’s instatement as a Navy chaplain and the designation of the Washington-based Humanist Society as the official endorsing agency for humanist chaplains, as well as for the court to recognize that Heap’s constitutional rights were violated.

Heap, who applied to become a chaplain last year, was informed this spring that the Navy had declined his application without explanation.

Navy officials, according to the lawsuit, were seeking to enroll a chaplain with Heap’s educational background, which includes degrees from Texas Christian University and Oxford University. But after discovering he was a humanist seeking to live an ethical life based on nonreligious principles, his application process went awry, the lawsuit alleges.

Some critics have ridiculed the idea of chaplains who don’t follow a religion, including Rep. John Fleming, R-La., the sponsor of a 2013 amendment to block atheist chaplains.

“The notion of an atheist chaplain is nonsensical; it’s an oxymoron,” Fleming said.

But roughly 3.6 percent of military officials identify themselves as humanists, according to the lawsuit, and Heap’s supporters claim that humanist ethical beliefs are constitutionally equal to other religious faiths.

“[Heap] adheres to these beliefs with the strength and sincerity of traditionally recognized religious views,” the lawsuit reads.

Chaplains, among the only counselors who can speak to troops confidentially, also act as key contacts for soldiers seeking guidance on a variety of issues and programs.

“As a result of the Navy’s decision to deny Dr. Heap’s application, there are no Humanist chaplains in the U.S. Navy or in any branch of the armed services,” the lawsuit said. “The absence of even a single Humanist chaplain impairs the religious exercise of Humanists in the Navy.”