September 15, 2011 - 11:48 am

At the end of July, foxhole atheist and WWII Pilot John Hormuth was interred in a humanist ceremony along with his wife at Arlington National Cemetery.  Unfortunately, an Arlington Lady provided verbal blessings and a written religious card officially on behalf of the Chief of Staff of the Army.  This was done against the explicit wishes of the family.

But there is good news.  After coordination by the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers on behalf of the Hormuth family, Arlington has responded.  Col. Ronald Tuggle, Chief of Staff of the Army National Cemeteries Program, called MAAF to address the problem.

After an investigation, Col. Tuggle issued a letter to the family apologizing for the incident.*  He conducted group training with cemetery administrators and the Arlington Ladies to reinforce the importance of including religious content only when requested by the family and only in the manner requested by the family.  The two individuals involved were also counseled directly.  COL Tuggle has also initiated efforts to better standardize and enforce procedures to maintain a line between personal religious statements and official government policies.

While the family will remember the problem at the ceremony, they can be consoled that theCeremony Detail Arlington cemetery administration has taken action to correct the problem.  Col. Tuggle stands with Arleen Ocasio, director of Houston Cemetery Administration who stood up to sectarian interests to protect the Constitution and the wishes of families utilizing the cemetery.  It is also relevant to note that the family had no trouble in requesting a humanist service, humanist celebrant, and humanist headstone.  MAAF applauds these officials for protecting the rights of families and for protecting the neutrality of government in religious matters.

These are two positive stories, but Christian organizations continue to instigate protests and litigation.  Political Christian organizations are pushing for their “rights” to pray at someone else’s funeral despite, as American United have explained, there is no legal standing for such rights.  Justin Griffith, Military Direct of American Atheists has started a petition to encourage the Veterans Administration to stand strong against this fabricated controversy.  Arlington National Cemetery is the only US-based cemetery run by the Army.  The rest fall under the Veterans Administration.

* MAAF has not yet been provided a copy of this letter but expects that it is a proper apology with acceptance of responsibility and a promise to prevent the issue in the future.  MAAF will continue to follow up about the final decision on new procedures at military cemeteries.

July 8, 2011 - 4:34 pm

Imagine you are at a funeral for a fallen veteran, possibly your husband or wife or uncle, and cemetery volunteers begin publicly praying to their god despite the fact that your family doesn't share their beliefs. 

The nation remembers Richard Tillman, who jumped on stage to stand up for his brother Pat Tillman's wishes.  The Veterans Affairs Cemetery Administration protects the family when it restricts the religious speech of volunteers, and volunteers can opt out of funerals where the family has not requested a religious service consistent with the religious interests of the volunteer.  Volunteers are given access to funerals to support the family, not to promote personal religious beliefs.

The Houston Chronicle reports that some Christian groups have filed suit against the constitutional policies of the VA cemetery administration:

Court documents allege that "the content of prayer forbade the use of religious messages in burial rituals unless the deceased's family submitted the text for prior approval," that the [Houston] "VA prohibited volunteer honor guards from providing optional recitations to families," and that "a government official monitors what is said."

The target of the lawsuit is Houston VA cemetery director Arleen Ocasio, who is accused of preventing volunteers cemetery workers from sending "God bless" prayers to families who haven't asked for them. The article indicates that the Liberty Institute, like the Alliance Defense Fund before it, is getting assistance from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion in promoting special Christian privilege in government activities.  The following key points are missed in the Chronicle's treatment of the issue:

  • the cemetery administration rightfully maintains a secular ceremony in the absence of family requests;
  • the choices for a burial ceremony are not "religious" or "secular," but rather "secular" or the family's choice among hundreds of different religious traditions;
  • the cemetery administration rightfully allows for religious messages, symbols, and rituals only according to the family's wishes (not the volunteers' wishes);
  • volunteer speech is rightfully limited as their speech is government speech rather than private speech when volunteering at the cemetery;
  • volunteers may provide religious commentary only when consistent with the family's specific; sectarian wishes and only when approved by the presiding chaplain;
  • veterans organizations should advocate for all veterans and avoid misusing their position to promote special Christian privileges;
  • the true victims in this situation are the families who have lost loved ones, not the volunteers who want a government platform for their religious beliefs

The Veterans Administration should explicitly state that government-provided ceremonies are secular unless the family requests a specific kind of religious ritual, and that volunteers must avoid religious language unless the presiding chaplain confirms their intended prayers are consistent with the family's wishes. 

The Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers has confirmed directly that cemetery director Ocasio supports the rights of families to have religious services in the manner that they the family desire.  Although the chapel is still under construction, it is nonetheless open and operating as an interfaith chapel facility.  Christian and other religious materials and symbols are available for those that request them (not on permanent display) and volunteers may provide religious speech when authorized by the presiding chaplain or when directly requested by the family (not whenever the volunteer wishes).

Pro-Christian media and local groups have run wild with the initial story.  Protests at the cemetery, press conferences, and follow-up stories have called for the resignation of the cemetery director.  This story also builds on a recent Liberty Institute lawsuit fighting for the right of a Christian to pray to Jesus at an official government Memorial Day event (thus providing special privilege to one form of Christianity), rather than to provide a ceremonial, non-denominational prayer (that only discriminates against atheists).

The Liberty Institute and the volunteers at the cemetery fail to understand that participating in a veteran's memorial service is a privilege that comes with the responsibility to serve the family, not one's personal evangelical interests.  In accepting a part in the ceremony, the volunteer becomes subject to the family's wishes.  If the family has not requested a certain type of religious ceremony, then volunteers who pray at them are violating the trust and confidence of the family.  Would these volunteers, during their burial ceremony, appreciate being told "Allahu Akbar" from a well-meaning Muslim?  Maybe the family would be offended and maybe not, but the government and its representatives, those volunteers, do not have the right to impose on the family a religious viewpoint without the family's permission.  This is not private religious speech or even public religious speech.  These are comments from volunteers duly appointed by the National Cemetery Administration.  Cemetery volunteers engage in government speech, not private speech, and so it is restricted to the wishes of the family.

The Chronicle
reported on Nobleton Jones, a volunter who has provided shell casings to grieving family members, adding his own personal prayer, "We ask that God grant you and your family grace, mercy and peace."  How many grieving family members have had their memorial ruined by Jones's disregard for their beliefs?  Isn't one family member too many?  Even if the number is zero, Jones has overstepped his authority by inserting his personal religion into a government activity.  If the family did not request a minister, then the volunteer has no right to stand in.  If the family did request a minister, presumably they trust the minister rather than the untrained volunteer to offer the prayer.  Only if the family requested a specific religious ceremony and the volunteer received approval from the presiding chaplain should the volunteer feel comfortable imposing their beliefs on the family's memorial service.

One lost message among many in the "censoring God" rhetoric is that religious speech and religious ceremonies are entirely authorized by the national cemetery.  MAAF absolutely defends the right of veterans and their families to request religious emblems on their grave markers, to have ministers and attending volunteers offer sectarian prayer, to have religious symbols and rituals as part of burial ceremonies at government cemeteries, and to have government officials (presumably cemetery chaplains) review and control volunteer actions and speech in their official duties.  The key guideline for speech, symbols, and the entire burial ceremony is:  Only at the request of the family and only in the manner prescribed by the family.

While the facts are still coming in, MAAF is concerned this is one more collaboration by veterans organizations like the VFW and Legion and radical Christian lawyers like Alliance Defense and Liberty Legal to apply veteran's service to secure special privileges for Christianity, such as posting Christian symbols on public land, stopping non-Christians from having the same privileges, and praying to Jesus during government ceremonies.  The VFW, Legion, volunteers and other Christian advocates should redirect their efforts away from responsible officials like Ocasio and instead respect the wishes veterans' families.

April 27, 2011 - 3:19 pm

The front page of the New York Times today features a story about efforts by the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) to better support atheists and humanists and to endorse humanist chaplains in the military.

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — In the military, there are more than 3,000 chaplains who minister to the spiritual and emotional needs of active duty troops, regardless of their faiths. The vast majority are Christians, a few are Jews or Muslims, one is a Buddhist. A Hindu, possibly even a Wiccan may join their ranks soon.

But an atheist?

Strange as it sounds, groups representing atheists and secular humanists are pushing for the appointment of one of their own to the chaplaincy, hoping to give voice to what they say is a large — and largely underground — population of nonbelievers in the military.

Joining the chaplain corps is part of a broader campaign by atheists to win official acceptance in the military. Such recognition would make it easier for them to raise money and meet on military bases. It would help ensure that chaplains, religious or atheist, would distribute their literature, advertise their events and advocate for them with commanders.

But winning the appointment of an atheist chaplain will require support from senior chaplains, a tall order. Many chaplains are skeptical: Do atheists belong to a “faith group,” a requirement for a chaplain candidate? Can they provide support to religious troops of all faiths, a fundamental responsibility for chaplains?

Jason Torpy, a former Army captain who is president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, said humanist chaplains would do everything religious chaplains do, including counsel troops and help them follow their faiths. But just as a Protestant chaplain would not preside over a Catholic service, a humanist might not lead a religious ceremony, though he might help organize it.

“Humanism fills the same role for atheists that Christianity does for Christians and Judaism does for Jews,” Mr. Torpy said in an interview. “It answers questions of ultimate concern; it directs our values.”

Mr. Torpy has asked to meet the chiefs of chaplains for each of the armed forces, which have their own corps, to discuss his proposal. The chiefs have yet to comment.

The Chaplain Outreach program at MAAF also seeks to ensure that the 3,000 chaplains already serving in our military underst and both why and how they should support atheists, humanists, and other nontheists. Hemant Mehta, the "Friendly Atheist," highlighted Department of Defense demographics showing there are more atheists in the military than Jews, Buddhists, or Muslims, yet those smaller groups have endorsed chaplains. All of the above-mentioned services are already provided by chaplains for all religious groups (Christians for Jews, Jews for Muslims, etc). MAAF simply seeks equal support.

There are already closeted atheist chaplains in the military who just need a humanist endorser so that they can provide their services openly and fully according to their conscience.

Justin Griffith with Military Atheists and Secular Humanists (MASH) also took time to host Times reporter Jim Dao at a MASH-Fort Bragg meeting. His efforts are part of local activism around the world to bring military atheists out of the closet and to advocate for our needs. Local groups are already set up from Japan to Italy, including Fort Hood, Fort Bragg, MacDill Air Force Base, and the USS Abraham Lincoln, to name a few. The military academies are leading the way so far, with recognized groups at the Military (Army), Naval, and Air Force Academies.

MAAF is also sponsoring Justin’s efforts to be recognized as a lay leader, an officially-recognized leader of atheists and humanists at Fort Bragg. Lay leader certification will give atheists and humanists equal access to chaplain services, like facilities, scheduling, and rooms. Fort Bragg is still reviewing the application and after about a month has yet to confirm that the application has been sent forward to higher command. Pending the outcome of this effort, MAAF has other local group leaders are waiting in the wings to be recognized at their installations. The student situation is different and they benefit from the support of the Secular Student Alliance, but the military is slowly recognizing that atheists and humanists deserve fully equal support.

Through chaplain outreach, humanist chaplains, local group support, and official recognition by the military, nontheists in the military will know that they are fully equal members of the military team. The Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers is stepping forward to make that happen, but the military must be willing to accept that help.

March 28, 2011 - 9:39 am

From March 16th to 22nd, I traveled to Virginia and North and South Carolina to put out the MAAF message and improve the support of atheists, humanists, and other nontheists in the military.  The intention was to visit local civilian organizations, meet MAAF members, and speak with chaplains. Six local humanist groups came out to hear the message, and those audiences included several MAAF members.  I was also able to meet with Justin Griffith and members of MASH Fort Bragg. Chaplains at Fort Bragg, Naval Station Norfolk, and the Air Force Chaplains College at Fort Jackson reviewed MAAF resources and listened to some of the issues facing us.

The chaplains hold power and influence within the military and have control over resources. This is precisely because of the important missions chaplains carry out in caring for service members, advising the chain of command, and either providing or providing for religious support (as explained in chaplaincy regulations such as AF Instruction 52-101, Navy TRP 1-05.1, Army Reg 165-1, and Joint Pub 1-05). However, chaplains have few resources to help nontheists, and nontheists oForten expect hostility from chaplains. Some chaplains have been receptive to improving their support and negative perceptions.

During the trip, Chaplain Major Jeffrey Quinn hosted me at Naval Station Norfolk. He is currently draForting updates to Navy programs including the command religious program, religious accommodation, and lay leader certification. He has explicitly recognized humanists and atheists as a way to improve the diversity of the services of the Navy chaplaincy. There is also a balance of establishment protections as well as opportunities for free exercise. By including MAAF, he took a positive step toward accurately representing the nontheist perspective. There are many steps in the vetting process for new regulations, but I’m excited about the progress and inclusiveness so far.

On March 16th, I visited the Air Force Chaplain Corps College and was hosted by the Deputy Commandant, Chaplain Colonel Jimmy Browning.  We met at the Air Force Academy Religious Respect Conference last November.  The Air Force maintains a dedicated schoolhouse on the same campus with the Army and Navy/Marine schoolhouses at Fort Jackson, SC.  Chaplain Browning brought in staff, including the senior enlisted advisor and the heads of the two departments within the college – education and resources.  The staff provided a briefing and tour of the facility to show what they currently do and how they might help nontheist service members.

Spiritual and religious terms and imagery were ever-present.  A quote from George Washington promoted the importance of religion to the military.  A large banner included three core values:  Glorifying God, Serving Airman, and Pursuing Excellence.  There is a primary mission to “care for the airman’s soul.”  All of the chaplains continually returned to their spiritual mission – spiritual in the sense of divine worship and matters of the (supernatural) soul.  It cannot be denied that the chaplains are established for, focused on, and most comfortable with their traditional mission to support divine religious views and practices, but that is not the end of the story.

The invitation, the senior personnel present during the meeting, and positive tone of the event were all indications of the openness of chaplains to supporting nontheists.  As part of the MAAF Chaplain Outreach program, I presented a briefing showing the perspectives of humanists in the military and some of the culture and activities that make us feel like outsiders.  I also presented the humanist philosophy and ethical stance to show how we answer the “big questions.”  I asked for some additional detail on the chaplain training program and their resources.  The initial meeting was informational to learn about each other as an important foundation for future collaboration on training, programming, and chaplain materials.

I was also able to visit Fort Bragg Chaplain Office about supporting Justin Griffith and MASH Fort Bragg. In attendance were Fort Bragg Chaplains Hillis, Rozmiarek, and McElroy, as well as several legal and installation personnel.  These were some of the same personnel involved evangelical Rock The Fort concert, so it was good to have them speak with us.  At least one member of the group seemed reflectively cautious about the prospect of approving an atheist lay leader.  But he did participate, and it was helpful to be able to respond to candid questions.  I talked with chaplains about the humanist perspective and how they can support us.  The chaplains had a lot of questions about what we are looking for in terms of support.  We explained that we only seek the same services that religious groups receive, including official acceptance, rooms to meet in, and advertisement of our meetings through chaplain channels.

A major step toward official chaplain support for humanists is to certify a lay leader.  Sgt. Griffith has volunteered, with MAAF serving as the endorser. This requires several administrative documents and recommendations to be processed.  The chaplains are helping us through our application, and they offered to ask for an interim approval until official approval can be finalized.  We are looking forward to approval of the paperwork, advertisement of the first meeting, and the first on-post meeting aForter the paperwork is processed.  Justin is continuing to work towards a Rock Beyond Belief secular event, but Fort Bragg leaders blocked the planned April date.  Rock Beyond Belief and other issues notwithstanding, support for MASH Fort Bragg weekly meetings would be a success to celebrate, and the chaplains are helping us to move in that direction.

The initial outcome of a week of visits was a positive reception from three separate chaplain’s offices, several civilian organizations, and a local chapter.  The Air Force chaplain school visit, Navy religious accommodation regulations, and Army lay leader support are all hallmarks of a new military inclusive of the humanist perspective.  Humanists in Columbia, Raleigh, and northern Virginia heard me explain the vision of MAAF, and heard that we have a long way to go.  There is still a long way to go, but at least this week has been positive on all fronts.

March 9, 2011 - 7:29 pm

Finally, gays can serve openly in the military… right? Not exactly. After decades of discrimination, there's the glimmer of a future. Even though we should celebrate a great victory in the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, there is a long way to go. First, and most obviously, the military must prepare and implement a plan to integrate gays into the military. A long period of reviews and reports and sensitivity training will precede the actual freedom to serve openly. We should all look forward to the first military Coming Out Day, but if we are realistic, we will plan for October 12, 2012 rather than 2011.

This great celebration that we await only celebrates federal, administrative authorization to serve. It is important to remember this is only the authorization to be out. As an atheist in the military, I can be “out,” but that certainly doesn't mean there are no issues. For newly-out gay service members, we should expect accusations from all sides – sexual harassment, harassment about sexual orientation, freedom of speech, freedom of religion. The military is trying to mitigate issues through its sensitivity training and implementation plans. I hope that military and LGBT support organizations are ready for a lot of counseling, advocacy, and litigation.

Internal harassment problems are only the basics. At the federal level, there could be months or years of delays or even re-implementation of DADT from a conservative majority in the Congress. Another concern is blockage at the state level. While the active duty and reserve military components are controlled by the federal government, the National Guard is controlled at the state level. DADT relates to state and federal regulations, housing benefits, veterans benefits, spousal benefits, religious freedoms, and interactions with local national populations during deployments. All of these areas provide legal end-arounds to restrict LGBT rights despite the general repeal of DADT.

There has been, throughout history and around the world, prejudice against homosexuals. That prejudice persists in many parts of the world. Fortunately in the US, with the benefit of a free society and some confirmation from science, much of that prejudice has been washed away. Zoology teaches us that homosexual relationships are not uncommon in nature. Psychology teaches us that sexual orientation is neither a choice nor simply male-female. Heterosexual relationships teach us that gender combination is no determiner of parenting quality, sexual deviation, or good citizenship. The problem is that some people have old books (a.k.a. scriptures) and religious leaders insisting that homosexuality is sinful and should be open for ridicule and ostracism.

The military has an entire professional clergy – 3,000 senior officers and thousands of veterans. There is great power among this government clergy, through rank, special access to commanders, and confidential access to troops. This will continue to amplify the loudest prejudices at all levels of the military. Factions of chaplains are organizing for internal resistance. With 66% of chaplains from just evangelical Christian denominations (excluding other Christian denominations), it is fair to expect strong dissent from chaplains. The interfaith community, civilian and chaplain, needs to organize to ensure that religion has a voice in support of LGBT rights, not just against. Hopefully Christian denominations that accept the DADT repeal can, from within, reform or dismiss from service those chaplains that are not fit to serve with homosexuals.

DADT has been repealed, but the wheels of bureaucracy will turn slowly. We can expect years of problems internal harassment and strong chaplain opposition as well as internal and external attempts to undermine the new law. That having been said, we should all put on our calendars that "Coming Out Day" and plan for a big celebration. It may take years, but for the first time, the military will cease to be a haven for discrimination.