Washington D.C. - The U.S. House has approved a measure that bars the Defense Department from appointing atheist chaplains. The vote, late Tuesday, was 253-173.
"The notion of an atheist chaplain is nonsensical; it's an oxymoron," said Rep. John Fleming, R-Minden, sponsor of the amendment to a House defense spending bill. He said it marks the third time the House has voted to insist the Pentagon appoint only chaplains certified by endorsing religious agencies.
Opponents said it is wrong to take away the flexibility of the military to appoint chaplains that can serve the spiritual needs of all military personnel.
"When a young man or young woman raises their right hand and swears allegiance to this country and agrees to serve in the Armed Forces, they do not consign themselves to serve as a second-class citizen, irrespective of their faith or their life philosophy," said Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J. "It is wrong to say to a solider who comes from such a tradition, that he or she, if they have an issue on which they're troubled, must go to a mental health professional in order to receive counseling, rather than someone who comes from their philosophical faith or tradition."
Fleming disputed the criticism from Andrews and other opponents of his amendment that his amendment discriminates against so-called secular humanists.
"It is absurd to argue that someone with no spiritual inclination should fill that role, especially when it could well mean that such an individual would take the place of a true chaplain who has been endorsed by a religious organization," Fleming said. "Opponents of my amendment make vastly exaggerated claims about the religious demographics of the military."
Fleming said less than one percent of service members identify themselves as atheists, "and all chaplains stand ready to serve any member of the Armed Forces, regardless of whether he or she shares the chaplain's faith."
The House also approved, this time by voice vote, an amendment by Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, that bars the Defense Department from entering into new contracts to procure or produce biofuels. He said that the alternative fuels are too expensive.
"In this post-sequestration time of tight Defense Department budgets, the Navy should not be wasting $170 million to prop-up the biofuels industry, especially at a time when Defense Secretary (Chuck) Hagel is significantly reducing training and maintenance of operating forces," Scalise said. "It only makes sense for the U.S. military to use the most cost-effective fuel options available, but unfortunately that has not recently been the case within the Department of Defense. In tough economic times every dollar counts."
The defense bill allocates $512.5 billion for the 2014 fiscal year, beginning Oct 1, $26.2 billon above current funding levels after the budget sequestration, plus an additional $85.8 billion for overseas contingency operations.
It also includes a 1.8 percent pay raise for military personnel.
The Republican-written bill would continue the congressional prohibition against transfer of Guantanamo, Cuba, detainees to the United States.