US Air Force to Atheist: Say ‘God’ in oath or don’t re-enlist
The unnamed member of the Air Force refused to take the oath containing “so help me God,” wanting a secular affirmation instead. So he crossed out the phrase on his contract. The airman was told by his superiors that he must swear to God or leave the Air Force, the AHA said in a press release. The organization learned of the service member through the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers, a group that represents atheist and agnostic military members. The airman is a member of that group, along with over 3,500 other current and former military personnel worldwide, the AHA said in its letter.
The AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center recently sent a letter to United States Air Force officials on behalf of the service member at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada, demanding that the airman be permitted to re-enlist with a contract using secular language.
“The government cannot compel a nonbeliever to take an oath that affirms the existence of a supreme being,” Monica Miller, an attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, said in the AHA statement. “Numerous cases affirm that atheists have the right to omit theistic language from enlistment or reenlistment contracts.”
In October 2013, the Air Force quietly updated the rules regarding re-enlistments in Air Force Instruction (AFI) 36-2606, its rules governing reenlistments, which all airmen must take when they enlist or reenlist. The new AFI removed the exception: “Note: Airmen may omit the words ‘so help me God,’ if desired for personal reasons,” the Air Force Times reported.
“Reciting ‘So help me God’ in the reenlistment and commissioning oaths is a statutory requirement under Title 10 USC 502,” Air Force spokeswoman Rose Richeson told the AF Times Thursday. AFI 36-2606 “is consistent with the language mandated in 10 USC 502. Paragraph 5.6 [and] was changed in October 2013 to reflect the aforementioned statutory requirement and airmen are no longer authorized to omit the words ‘So help me God.’ ”
The Air Force said it cannot change its AFI to make “so help me God” optional unless Congress changes the statute mandating it.
The AHA letter cited the airman’s First Amendment rights to the separation of church and state. “It is well settled that the government cannot compel a person to take an oath that invokes a supreme being. The Establishment Clause specifically prohibits the government from requiring a non-believer to take an oath that affirms the existence of God,” it said.
This is not the first time the military, and the Air Force specifically, has come under fire for its relationship with religion. The Air Force Academy entered the spotlight in July 2012, when accusations of improper proselytizing on the Colorado Springs, Colo. campus arose, the Huffington Post reported. At the same time, evangelical Christians complained that the military branch was suppressing religious freedom.
The dispute was revived in May of this year, according to McClatchy DC, when conservative Christian groups protested a regulation designed to prevent religious bias by barring commanders and other leaders from “the actual or apparent use of their positions to promote their religious convictions to their subordinates.”
“The single biggest frustration I’ve had in this job is the perception that somehow there is religious persecution inside the United States Air Force,” Gen. Mark Welsh III, the Air Force’s top general, told a House Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this spring. “It’s not true.”
The unnamed airman alleges he is being persecuted for his non-religion, with Miller calling the religious words in the oath a “religious test.”
“Forcing [the airman] to swear to a supreme being as a condition of his reenlistment is tantamount to a ‘religious test’ and is therefore violative of this constitutional provision as well,” she wrote in the letter to his commanding officers.
But the branch he belongs to said that he has not been completely denied the ability to re-enlist. In a statement sent to Al Jazeera on Friday, Air Force spokeswoman Rose Richeson said that the airman’s “term of service expires in November 2014” and that “he has until this time to complete” Department of Defense Form 4, which contains the oath with the words “so help me God.”
The AHA, however, threatened to sue the service member’s commanding officer in federal court “for injunctive and declaratory relief,” the organization’s letter said. “In addition, because the law in this area is well established, those commanders may be sued in their individual capacities and be personally liable for damages along with attorneys’ fees.”