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Military expands list of recognized religions

By DANAE KING GateHouse Ohio Media Published: May 17, 2017 12:00 AM

While a new list of recognized religions is cause for celebration for some, military officials say it won't change much when it comes to daily life.

Last month, the Department of Defense released a complete list of the religions it recognizes, including some that haven't been recognized by all branches in the past.

On the list are heathenry, humanism, paganism, Wicca and more.

Though the military chaplaincy has "a long history of respecting diversity," Ohio National Guard State Chaplain Colonel Andrew Aquino said the list could make soldiers more willing to divulge their religion.

"In the past, if (the persons' religion wasn't) on the list, we wouldn't know how to clearly identify them," Aquino said. In the past, people may have identified as having no religious preference, because their religion wasn't on the list, he said.

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Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers and an Army veteran, has been trying to get humanism recognized by the military for 10 years. Humanists don't believe in a god, but instead in science and compassion, according to the American Humanist Association.

"Humanists should be able to be comfortable in their own skin with who they are and not fear they're going to be separated from their team for having different beliefs," Torpy said.

If more people identify their religion using the list, Aquino and other chaplains can generate a religious preference profile to help the military better support unique religious needs.

The list is a compilation of faiths already recognized by at least one of the military branches, Johnny Michael, a Department of Defense spokesman, said in an email.

The memorandum came after the Armed Forces Chaplains Board reviewed the recognized faith groups and recommended adding more. The list has 221 faith options, an increase from the approximately 100 on previous lists, according to the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers' website.

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Torpy is looking at the list as a way to further the military's support of humanism, with a focus on the chaplaincy.

Having chaplains who are either humanist or informed about humanism could be "very beneficial and help military personnel do their job better," Torpy said.

Humanist chaplains are important for "all the reasons people think chaplains are important to support Christians," Torpy said. "They're asking for a connection to a community of like-minded people ... Without a connection it's not as easy for them to be part of the team, to deal with the stress of daily life."

When it comes to humanism, the military can employ humanist chaplains; have existing chaplains welcome humanists in; and train chaplains on humanism, Torpy said.

It's unclear whether the military will add humanist and other chaplains to the list of religions that endorse chaplains, though chaplains have always been open to people of any religion, said Stephanie Beougher, an Ohio National Guard civilian spokeswoman.

Chaplains are currently endorsed to represent Jews, Catholics, members of American Orthodox Church, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans and Presbyterians. Each has a religious affairs specialist to help them with administrative, logistical and support tasks, she said in an email.

As for training on the additional religions, Michael said chaplains won't be trained on the added belief systems.

"Chaplains perform or provide for specific religious ministration when a member of the unit articulates a need," he said. "Commanders and chaplains receive training to ensure that every member of the organization enjoys the right to the free exercise of their religion, or to practice no religion at all."

Aquino joked that "Google's a great thing," when asked about helping a service member who identifies with a religion with which he's unfamiliar.

"With emerging religions and religions we haven't been familiar with in the past, it is kind of an evolving process," he said. "We study up on them so we can better inform our commanders on supporting those needs."

For example, if there is a Muslim soldier in the unit he's working with, and they tell him of their specific dietary needs, Aquino can advocate to the commander for the mess hall to offer food the person can eat.

Religion also can become very important when it comes to a soldier's death.

Lonny Heft, a heathen who lives in Lithopolis, served in the Army from 2002 to 2008 and said the addition of his religion, which isn't widely practiced, is a big deal. Heathenry is a pagan religion that worships pre-Christian gods such as Thor and Odin.

Not being able to specify the religion a person practices while in the military can be difficult.

"For example, if you die overseas and you're buried at Arlington National Cemetery, your religion's symbol might not necessarily be one you can choose from," Heft said.

Dog tags are another issue. When people enter the military, they are asked their religion, Heft said. His answer was agnostic, which he was at the time, but a Christian religion was printed on his dog tags.

Aquino, endorsed by the American Baptist Churches USA, has been a chaplain for almost 30 years. He said he enjoys his job and sees it as "really a great opportunity to help our country meet religious needs.

"A happy soldier, a happy airman is one that is spiritually supported."


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