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18 Sep, 2014 04:12

US Air Force to allow atheists to omit ‘God’ from reenlistment oath

US Air Force to allow atheists to omit ‘God’ from reenlistment oath

The US Air Force is changing the instructions for its reenlistment pledge after an atheist airman was initially denied the ability to re-enlist because he refused to use the word “God” in his oath of office.

On Wednesday, the Air Force instructed force support offices across the service to allow enlisted members and officers to omit the words “so help me God” from enlistment and officer appointment oaths if the airmen so chooses, the branch said in a statement. The US Air Force requested an opinion from the Department of Defense General Counsel, addressing the legal parameters of the oath. The Counsel concluded that removing the words was permissible.

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

The Air Force originally said it could not change its Air Force Instruction (AFI) to make “so help me God” optional, unless Congress changed the statute mandating it.

READ MORE: US Air Force to Atheist: Say ‘God’ in oath or don’t re-enlist

The issue began when an unnamed member of the Air Force refused to take the oath containing the words “so help me God,” wanting a secular affirmation instead. 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 American Humanist Association (AHA) said in a press release.

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.”

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)

The old version of AFI 36-2606 included an exception which stated: “Note: Airmen may omit the words ‘so help me God,’ if desired for personal reasons,” the Air Force Times reported. However, that sentence was quietly removed in October 2013.

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.

The unnamed airman alleged he was 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,” Miller wrote in a letter to the man's commanding officers.

The Air Force initially said the airman was not completely denied the ability to re-enlist. In a statement sent to Al Jazeera earlier in September, Air Force spokeswoman Rose Richeson said 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, then 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.”

Now the airman’s enlistment paperwork will be processed to completion without the offending words of “So help me God.”

“We are pleased that the US Department of Defense has confirmed our client has a First Amendment right to omit the reference to a supreme being in his reenlistment oath,” Miller wrote in a statement emailed to the Washington Post’s Checkpoint blog.