When a service member stationed at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada decided to re-enlist last month, his contract included the words “So help me God.”
He decided to cross the phrase out, which should be perfectly acceptable, but the Air Force said he had to include it or get out. That’s when the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center stepped in. They wrote a letter to Air Force officials reminding them that forcing the service to sign the oath was a violation of the First Amendment.
Keep in mind that no other branch of the U.S. military has this problem; they’re fine with atheists affirming the oath without mentioning God. Only the Air Force didn’t allow that.
In the past week, we’ve seen Air Force officials ask the Department of Defense for advice (which is like asking a college professor to help you with basic addition — you can’t take care of this one yourself? Really?!), the issue discussed on cable news, and even right wing conservatives admit that the Air Force crossed the line.
Maybe the pressure helped.
Today, Air Force officials issued a press release saying they would finally reverse their policy:
The Air Force has instructed force support offices across the service to allow both enlisted members and officers to omit the words “So help me God” from enlistment and officer appointment oaths if an Airman chooses.
In response to concerns raised by Airmen, the Department of the Air Force requested an opinion from the Department of Defense General Counsel addressing the legal parameters of the oath. The resulting opinion concluded that an individual may strike or omit the words “So help me God” from an enlistment or appointment oath if preferred.
“We take any instance in which Airmen report concerns regarding religious freedom seriously,” said Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James. “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. Airmen who choose to omit the words ‘So help me God’ from enlistment and officer appointment oaths may do so.
The language in previous instructions was based on an Air Force legal interpretation of 10 U.S.C. 502, 5 U.S.C. 3331 and Title 32, which contain the oaths of office.
The Air Force requested the review following a ceremony at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, in which an enlisted Airman struck out the words, “So help me God” on the Department of Defense Form 4 and did not include them in his verbal oath. The Airman’s unit was unable to process his paperwork due to the guidance in Air Force Instruction 36-2606, Reenlistment in the United States Air Force, which prohibited any omissions. Now that the Department of Defense General Counsel has provided an opinion, the Airman’s enlistment paperwork will be processed to completion.
Better late than never, right?
The AHA is thrilled, as they should be:
“We are 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,” said Monica Miller, an attorney with the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “We hope the Air Force will respect the constitutional rights of Atheists in the future.”
“After fighting for our rights, nontheists now again have the status quo in the Air Force, a secular affirmation consistent with other branches of service and our Constitution. 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,” said Jason Torpy, President of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers and board member of the American Humanist Association.
Remember: All of this started with one service member, who still remains anonymous, who refused to sign an oath he didn’t fully agree with. Because he spoke up, the Air Force changed its ways.
(Large portions of this article were posted earlier)