Well, here’s some pleasant news from the American Humanist Association: The Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBoP) now says that the AHA’s adjunct The Humanist Society will have the power to endorse chaplains.
If you’re a non-religious prisoner in the FBoP system — there aren’t many — and you want to speak to someone about matters of faith or just get counseling, your only options are religious chaplains, almost all of whom are Christian. Needless to say, if you’re an atheist concerned about the meaning of life, or death, or your purpose, it doesn’t help when the only people available to talk to you speak the language of faith. (In fact, until 2015, the FBoP didn’t even recognize Humanism as a “faith” at all.)
Recently, Samuel Mason, a chaplain who is endorsed by The Humanist Society, wanted to apply for a position with the FBoP… but that job application requires an endorsement (a recommendation letter, if you will) from an approved list of organizations. The Humanist Society wasn’t on that list.
Now they are.
“This is an enormous victory, not only for humanism but for all who are working toward a more inclusive and equal society,” commented [Mason]…
“As chaplaincy evolves to become more inclusive and evidence-based, there are an increasing number of opportunities for humanists to live out their values by serving as professional chaplains,” added Mason. “This is one of those opportunities that we, as a community, simply must work to realize.”
The fact that The Humanist Society wasn’t on the FBoP’s list wasn’t malicious, as far as I can tell. It’s not like they actively made a decision to keep Humanists off the list. It simply wasn’t an option and no one ever asked to change it. The AHA finally made that request, and earlier this month, they got the approval they wanted. According to a letter sent to the AHA by FBoP Chaplaincy Administrator Rev. Heidi Kugler,
The Bureau of Prisons acknowledges The Humanist Society as an ecclesiastical endorser and you as its endorsing agent for candidates from the Humanist community seeking employment with the Bureau of Prisons. The Bureau values this relationship with the ecclesiastical endorser because it recognizes the essential support the faith community provides to its chaplains and to the Bureau of Prisons in the accomplishment of our mission.
(Don’t get thrown off by the religious language; The Humanist Society was founded by Quakers though it is non-theistic.)
With this letter, The Humanist Society will basically be allowed to put its own stamp of approval on potential FBoP chaplaincy applicants and have it count. It doesn’t mean those applicants will automatically get the job, but it means their affiliation with a Humanist group won’t be a hindrance either. That’s a positive change.
I asked Kugler via email if there have been similar requests from non-religious groups in the past, if prisoners had specifically requested non-religious chaplains, and how hiring conversations would change on her end when Humanists apply for chaplain positions. I’ll update this post if I hear back.
(Image via Shutterstock)