Air Force reverses course on God in its enlistment oath
by Andrew Branch
Posted 9/18/14, 03:40 pm
The Air Force announced Wednesday it will immediately end the requirement that airmen swear “so help me God” at the end of their enlistment oaths.
“We take any instance in which airmen report concerns regarding religious freedom seriously,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said.
The Air Force had denied re-enlistment to an airman at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada after he crossed out “so help me God” on his paperwork and did not use the phrase in his verbal oath. Monica Miller, an attorney with the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, gave the Air Force an ultimatum: If the airman couldn’t re-enlist by Friday, the organization would sue.
With the lawsuit threat, the Air Force changed course Wednesday after consulting the Department of Defense. The policy change is effective immediately, Air Force officials said, though it may take a few weeks to update written policies.
The issue arose because decades-old U.S. laws containing the oaths of office technically do not make the phrase optional. While other branches of the military and the federal government have consistently ruled of late that the phrase is optional, the Air Force quietly removed the option to omit the phrase last year. Article VI of the U.S. Constitution states, “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
Activist Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRRF), had also written to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on behalf of 17 religious servicemen who planned to refuse the phrase in solidarity with the embattled airman.
“The Air Force doesn’t get any high fives for doing what is obviously and very clearly the correct constitutional thing to do,” Weinstein told me. “We can’t have a religious test for any position in the federal government.”
MRRF and similar groups are known for protesting virtually any kind of expression, including Bibles on officers’ desks, that identifies a leader’s religious affiliation while in his or her official capacity. The complaints usually face bitter opposition from conservatives and Christians, including this summer when an atheist complaint led the Navy Exchange to remove donated Bibles from rooms in base lodges.
A conservative outcry prompted Navy leadership to order the Bibles returned last month, but this time, Christians sided with the atheist airman.
“We want those airmen who believe in God to be able to say these words and we respect the right of those who abstain,” Ron Crews, the executive director of the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, told Fox News. Crews praised the Air Force’s move Wednesday, though he virulently opposed the Air Force Academy’s attempt last year to consider removing the phrase altogether.
Other conservatives also stood in firm support of the airman based on Article VI of the Constitution. “The men who adopted the Constitution wisely evaluated that the tyranny of allowing government to judge whether a citizen was acceptably religious was a greater threat to the nation than allowing a person’s statement of loyalty to stand without an oath,” said Patrick Vaughn, a lawyer at the conservative American Family Association (AFA).