Summary of the Lawsuit

In November 2014, Jason D. Heap, Ed.D., an Oxford University-educated instructor in history and theology, and The Humanist Society, a religious non-profit organization,  filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the United States Navy’s rejection of Dr. Heap’s application to serve as a Humanist chaplain in the United States military.  Cohen Milstein and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs represent the plaintiffs in this lawsuit.

The lawsuit, Heap and The Humanist Society v. Hagel filed in United States District Court, Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division, also seeks to require the Navy and U.S. Department of Defense to recognize The Humanist Society as a religious organization qualified to endorse military chaplains. Both plaintiffs allege that the Navy and Department of Defense rejected their applications because of their Humanist beliefs and affiliations.

Background of the Case

Dr. Heap practiced in ministry and charitable work for more than 20 years before applying to become a chaplain in the United States Navy. His career began with service as a licensed minister at the First Baptist Church in LaGrange, Texas, and spanned work at international schools where he counseled and taught students from widely varied religious traditions. As Dr. Heap gained exposure to different traditions and pursued graduate studies at Texas Christian University and University of Oxford, he identified with Humanism’s emphasis on the goodness of human nature and human welfare as a moral imperative. Desiring to continue his work in ministry as a Humanist, Dr. Heap sought and received the endorsement of The Humanist Society as a Humanist Celebrant.

Dr. Heap consulted with recruiters for the Navy chaplaincy in early 2013 about becoming a chaplain. Navy recruiters initially encouraged him to apply and offered to expedite his application. However, all encouragement abruptly ceased after the Navy learned that Dr. Heap is a Humanist after receiving the Humanist Society’s endorsement. The Navy denied Dr. Heap’s application in May 2014 without providing any explanation for the denial. At the same time, the Navy accepted other applicants who were not Humanists and who were less qualified for the position according to the Navy’s recruitment criteria.

Navy policy requires the Navy Chaplain Corps to give special consideration to candidates endorsed by religious organizations that are not currently represented in the Chaplains Corps but that are represented among service members.

Status of the Litigation

Plaintiffs filed his initial complaint on November 5, 2014.  Defendants responded by filing a  Motion to Dismiss and a motion for summary judgment. In an Order and Memorandum Opinion issued July 1, 2015, the Court granted in part and denied in part Defendants’ Motions to Dismiss and denied Defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

The Initial Pretrial Conference was held on September 2, 2015.  The case is presently in discovery.  The Final Pretrial Conference is set for November 19, 2015.

Cohen Milstein attorney Robert A. Braun represents the plaintiffs in Heap and The Humanist Society v. Hagel et al.

Related News

US Navy Sued Over Rejection of Humanist Chaplain 
The National Law Journal 
November 12, 2014