In another test of the constitutional separation of church and state, “God” is now an optional entity in the honor oath sworn to by cadets at the US Air Force Academy.
It’s the latest in a series of episodes involving US service personnel, some of whom have felt pressured to exhibit a religiosity they do not hold too – including overt proselytizing by some chaplains and other senior officers.
When objections were raised to the “so help me God” phrase in the Air Force Academy’s honor oath, academy officials quickly relented.
“Here at the Academy, we work to build a culture of dignity and respect, and that respect includes the ability of our cadets, Airmen and civilian Airmen to freely practice and exercise their religious preference – or not,” Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson said in a statement. "So, in the spirit of respect, cadets may or may not choose to finish the Honor Oath with 'So help me God.'"
The full oath, which is a statement of the cadets’ “Honor Code,” reads: "We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does. Furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and to live honorably, so help me God."
The Honor Code, "We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does," was formally adopted by the Academy's first graduating class of 1959, according to public affairs officer Maj. Brus E. Vidal. It is the minimum standard of conduct which cadets expect of themselves and their fellow cadets.
In 1984, following widespread allegations of cheating in a physics class, the Cadet Wing voted to add an oath for all cadets to take. It is administered to fourth class cadets (freshmen) when they are formally accepted into the Wing at the conclusion of Basic Cadet Training, says Maj. Vidal on the academy’s website.
The issue was raised by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which is headed by Air Force Academy honor graduate and former military lawyer Michael Weinstein, whose two sons also are academy graduates.
The foundation, a civil rights and advocacy organization, has been involved in several high-profile cases challenging the US Defense Department over such issues as religious proselytizing and the presence of religious themes and practices in military units perceived as violating the US Constitution – particularly given a command structure in which subordinates feel pressured not to object.
“Weinstein has been accused of tilting at windmills in his struggles, but he scored a major victory in 2011, when the Air Force suspended a training course for nuclear missile launch officers that used Bible passages and religious imagery in a PowerPoint presentation about the ethics of war,” according to Defense News, a civilian publication. “Weinstein’s public persistence continues to influence Pentagon religious policies, including new rules released in 2012 restricting the sale of Bibles adorned with military insignia.”
Although cadets no longer are required to say “so help me God” as part of the Honor Oath – although they may – the academy continues to stress the importance of the Honor Code and oath.
"At the Air Force Academy, we produce Lieutenants for our Air Force and leaders for our Nation, so our focus here continues to be on developing leaders of character," General Johnson (the first woman to head the academy) said. "This all begins by living honorably. The Honor Code and Honor Oath reinforce this fundamental value.”