On the Hill: Congress Packs the Room for AHA’s First Briefing on Humanist Chaplains

Yesterday the American Humanist Association held its first ever congressional briefing in front of a packed audience of congressional staffers, members of the armed services, and the media. The room ended up being filled completely, including the standing room section, as staffers from congressional offices, congressional military committees, and members of the press crammed into the room to witness the important testimony provided by the panelists about allowing humanist chaplains in the military.

This briefing follows up on an effort last year by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) to introduce an amendment in the House of Representatives that would have allowed humanist chaplains in the military, an effort which was defeated largely due to confusion by members of Congress about what exactly humanist chaplains are and why they are so needed. A complete list of the congressional offices that sent staffers to the event can be found here. (I encourage you to contact your Representative’s office to either thank them for sending someone or to voice your displeasure for neglecting to do so.)

As the AHA’s lobbyist, I was pleased to organize this event with the help of Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), who secured the room, and I benefited greatly from the assistance of the AHA staff and interns, who helped email and call countless congressional offices to invite them to the event. An infographic titled “Humanist Chaplains and Non-Religious Americans in the Military” created with the assistance of the AHA’s graphic designer Lisa Zangerl and research from the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers also helped to pique interest in the event and received widespread attention on Facebook and other social media.

Speakers at the event included: Jason Torpy, who serves as president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, a national non-profit building community for atheists and humanists in the military; Rev. Stephen Boyd, who serves as the Minster for Chaplains and Specialized Ministers of the Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization Team for the United Church of Christ; and Major Ryan Jean, an active military member, Humanist Lay Leader, and Humanist Celebrant. Maggie Ardiente, director of communications for the American Humanist Association, moderated the panel.

The panelists discussed the growing number of nontheistic soldiers in the military and the crucial need for humanist chaplains to be included in the armed services, while also detailing cases of discrimination faced by humanist soldiers and the lack of diversity and humanist training in the chaplain corps. Also discussed was the difference between atheism and humanism, the requirement for humanist chaplains to support soldiers of all religious beliefs, and how some nontheistic soldiers feel uncomfortable going to a military psychologist because the meeting appears on their military record (meetings with a humanist chaplain would be fully confidential and would not reflect negatively on a soldier’s record).

There was also a question and answer period during which the panelists were asked to more clearly define humanist ethics, the difference between chaplains and military therapists, and the resistance in the chaplain corps to admitting a humanist, just to name a few. Staffers also left the briefing with an information packet that provided details about the sizeable nontheistic community in the military, the number of interfaith leaders that supported the acceptance of humanist chaplains, and information about how Congress can help to ensure religious equality within the armed services.

Overall, the briefing was successful in helping to educate those who have the ear of our nation’s legislators about this important topic, which is likely good news for when an amendment similar to the Polis Amendment is reintroduced. The coverage of the event by several news outlets, including The Huffington Post, The Washington Times, Military Times, Religion News Service, and others, will also help to ensure that this issue doesn’t simply fade away due to partisan gridlock and congressional inaction. Humanist members of the armed services should be excited that Congress is finally interested in granting them the equal treatment they so rightly deserve.