Air Force does quick about face on 'So help me God'

When an atheist enlisted man scratched out ‘So help me God’ on his reenlistment document, the Air Force said he couldn’t reenlist. That decision was quickly reversed when embarrassment and the threat of a lawsuit based on the US Constitution followed.

U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Don Branum
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.

Faster than a new recruit can shout “Sir, yes sir!” the US Air Force has reversed its policy requiring new recruits and those reenlisting to conclude a swearing-in oath with “So help me God.”

The trouble for the Air Force started when a Tech. Sgt. at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada with 10 years’ service wanted to reenlist. As an atheist, he didn’t see why he had to swear an oath to a deity he didn’t believe in. It seemed to violate the religious establishment clause of the US Constitution. And besides, none of the other branches of the US military required it, nor did the honor code at the US Air Force Academy turning out shiny, new Second Lieutenants.

So the sergeant scratched out that last line in the Air Force enlistment/reenlistment document, which read in full: “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.”

It seemed to him that to “swear (or affirm)” was commitment enough, and civil libertarians agreed.

The problem for the Air Force was that it felt bound by a 2013 update to Air Force Instruction 36-2606, which spells out the active-duty oath of enlistment but had dropped the option of not including “So help me God.”

When the American Humanist Association (AHA) announced that it would represent the sergeant – in court, if necessary – the Air Force scrambled to find a way out of a situation marked by mounting ridicule. More seriously, the situation seemed to reinforce the difficulty the Air Force has had in recent years with criticisms involving proselytizing and other forms of forced religiosity, including at the Air Force Academy.

Within days, the Air Force had kicked the situation up to the Pentagon, where the Defense Department’s General Counsel quickly determined that the sergeant was correct.

“We take any instance in which Airmen report concerns regarding religious freedom seriously,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said in a statement. “We are making the appropriate adjustments to ensure our Airmen's rights are protected.”

“The Air Force will be updating the instructions for both enlisted and commissioned Airmen to reflect these changes in the coming weeks, but the policy change is effective now,” the Air Force declared. “Airmen who choose to omit the words 'So help me God' from enlistment and officer appointment oaths may do so.”

Monica Miller, an attorney with the American Humanist Association, pronounced herself “pleased that the U.S. Department of Defense has confirmed our client has a First Amendment right to omit the reference to a supreme being in his reenlistment oath.”

 “We hope the Air Force will respect the constitutional rights of Atheists in the future,” she said in a statement.

It’s probably not the last the Air Force and the other services have heard about religion in the US military.

Says Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, “Now we return to seeking other equal rights such as identification on official records, chaplain support, and spiritual fitness training that helps humanists and other nontheists.”

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