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Can the Air Force require airmen to swear ‘So help me God’ to reenlist?

An atheist airman scratched out ‘So help me God’ on his Air Force reenlistment document. The Air Force alone among US military services requires that phrase, which has raised legal questions about freedom of – and from – religion.

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    Airmen assigned to Air Force bases in Colorado Springs, Colo., renew their oaths of enlistment on the flightline of Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., May 23, 2010.
    U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Don Branum
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The US Air Force has gotten itself into a bureaucratic, legal, and public relations snarl over what would seem to be a simple thing: Four words included in its reenlistment oath.

Those words – “So help me God” – didn’t used to be in the oath, nor are they required by any of the other branches of the US military. And for a service branch that’s had difficulty with criticisms involving proselytizing in recent years, they’re particularly ticklish.

The trouble started when an unnamed airman stationed at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, who considers himself an atheist, crossed out the phrase on the Armed Forces reenlistment form.

The full Air Force enlistment/reenlistment document reads: “I, [insert name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

The Air Force used to allow airmen to omit the phrase “so help me God” if they so chose. But an Oct. 30, 2013, update to Air Force Instruction 36-2606, which spells out the active-duty oath of enlistment, dropped that option, according to the Air Force Times.

Since that quiet update to the instruction, airmen have been required to swear an oath to a deity when they enlist or reenlist – a problem for who are serious about their nonbelief and want to stick up for what they see as their right under the US Constitution.

But, as the Air Force Times reports, “The Air Force said … that the change was made to bring its oath in line with the statutory requirement under Title 10 USC 502. The Air Force said it cannot change its AFI to make ‘so help me God’ optional unless Congress changes the statute mandating the oath.”

 “The Air Force has not answered questions … on the circumstances that led to the rule change, such as when the Air Force realized the opt-out clause violated statutory requirements, who brought this to the Air Force’s attention and when, and whether the statute ever allowed service members to opt out of saying ‘so help me God,’” according to this report.

In other words, an institutional mess sure to bring on ridicule and lawyers.

The American Humanist Association (AHA) recently sent a letter to Air Force officials on behalf of the airman.

“The government cannot compel a nonbeliever to take an oath that affirms the existence of a supreme being,” wrote Monica Miller, an attorney with the association’s legal center. “Numerous cases affirm that atheists have the right to omit theistic language from enlistment or reenlistment contracts.”

Others have weighed in as well.

“This Airman shows integrity, commitment to the nation, and respect for religion in standing firm for a secular oath that reflects his true values and intentions,” Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, said in a statement.

“The case law is so universally settled in this precise area that even actors who play lawyers on TV or in the movies could win this one in court,” writes Michael Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and a US Air Force Academy graduate who served in the judge advocate corps.

“When one ‘affirms’ such an oath of office, there is NO need to ‘swear’ to ‘God’ to do so,” Mr. Weinstein writes in an online op-ed. “Such is the very distinction between ‘swearing and affirming.’ [Federal law] allows either to be done by the enlisting or commissioning Air Force member.”

“The USAF’s transparent duplicity and specious motivations for basing its new decision to force service members to swear to God are dangerous, disingenuous and despicable,” Weinstein writes.

While the Air Force brass figures out what to do next, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody – the service’s top enlisted man – indicates the direction the story is likely to follow.

“I don’t know this airman, but I can certainly understand his concern here,” Chief Master Sergeant Cody told the Air Force Times, which is a private news source published by Gannett. “We absolutely, in the Air Force, respect every individual airman’s right to believe what they believe. We’re going to treat them with respect and dignity, regardless of what that is.”

“We’re certainly more than willing to work with this airman,” Cody said. “We are certainly more than willing to have him reenlist. We don’t hold any religious beliefs or nonbeliefs in any way, shape or form in context of that decision…. We just have to make sure we’re in compliance with the law.”

Legalisms aside, there may be precedent here. Last year, the Air Force Academy made 'so help me God' an optional phrase in the cadets' honor oath.

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