A 38-year-old former youth minister and atheist with a master’s degree in divinity from Texas Christian University was rejected when he applied to be a Navy chaplain. He has since filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Navy.
Jason Heap’s Navy application was rejected last year after he revealed his affiliation with the Humanist Society and the American Humanist Association. They support a “progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives,” according to the AHA website.
The lawsuit claims the Navy violated Heap’s constitutional rights by discriminating and denying him religious freedom rights, reports Military Times.
A team of Navy attorneys sought a summary judgment and urged District Judge James Chacheris to declare the lawsuit to be without merit at a federal courtroom in Virginia.
The Navy says Heap was turned away partly because he has limited experience as a religious leader. They say that it raised questions about his ability to provide spiritual care for thousands of sailors aboard ships at sea.
“It’s a very serious job that requires a lot of experience providing religious ministry,” said Kieran Gostin, an attorney representing the Navy and Defense Department.
The suit apparently does not accept the validity of the idea that Heap was unqualified. It reads, “Dr. Heap’s qualifications and experience far exceed the standards articulated by the Navy for accepting applicants,” The Huffington Post reports.
“It’s not that (Heap) cannot practice Humanism in his private life, it’s that he is not being hired by the Navy to do it in an official capacity as a chaplain,” Gostin said.
Heap’s attorneys as well as the Humanist Society disagree, believing his application for a commission was thwarted by the Chaplain Accessions, Retention and Evaluation board because they did not consider Humanism a serious religious affiliation.
“We are not suing for a right to be a Navy chaplain. We are suing for a right to be free of religious discrimination,” Mathew Smith, one of Heap’s lawyers, said.
“His application was denied because he was endorsed by the Humanist Society, because of discrimination against the Humanist Society in violation of his constitutional rights,” Smith said.
Attorneys for both sides said that studies show around 3.6 percent of service members identify as atheists or humanists.
When Heap was notified that his application was rejected, the letter from the Navy’s chief of chaplains office did not explain why.
At that time, an anonymous official said in an interview with Navy Times that there was uncertainty at the Chaplain Corps about what humanism is exactly. The official went on to say that Humanism can take different meanings, including Jewish Humanism. The Humanist Society was once a Quaker group, the official said.
Moreover, Navy lawyers argued the Defense Department has not ruled on whether to recognize Humanism as a religion.
The judge is expected to issue a ruling soon.