An unnamed airman at Nevada’s Creech Air Force Base who attempted to reenlist late last month was given a choice: Either recite the oath in its entirety–including the phrase “so help me God”–or leave the service.
The American Humanist Association, or AHA, an advocacy group for atheists, is now preparing to sue the U.S. Air Force on behalf of the airman, according to the Air Force Times.
The brouhaha began when the Air Force refused to accept the airman’s reenlistment contract after he had crossed out the phrase “so help me God.”
Monica Miller, an attorney with the AHA’s Apignani Humanist Legal Center, advised both the air base and the Air Force inspectors general in a Sept. 2 letter that their refusal to allow the airman to submit a secular oath was unacceptable and unconstitutional.
“The government cannot compel a nonbeliever to take an oath that affirms the existence of a supreme being,” Miller said in her letter. “Numerous cases affirm that atheists have the right to omit theistic language from enlistment or reenlistment contracts.”
Miller’s letter also noted that the rules governing enlistment were changed last year to now require swearing their oath to God.
Air Force Instruction 36-2606 spells out the active-duty oath of enlistment, which all airmen must take when they enlist or reenlist and ends with “so help me God.” The old version of that AFI included an exception: “Note: Airmen may omit the words ‘so help me God,’ if desired for personal reasons.”
That language was dropped in an Oct. 30, 2013, update to the AFI. The relevant section of that AFI now only lists the active-duty oath of enlistment, without giving airmen any option to choose not to swear an oath to a deity.
“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 Air Force Times. 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.’ ”
Miller argues that swearing to a deity amounts to nothing less than a religious test, which is prohibited by Article VI of the U.S. Constitution.
“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 said.
The Air Force’s response is that until Congress changes the statute mandating the phrase, it’s in no position to change its AFI.
Looking at it another way, although the Air Force can’t compel a person to swear to a deity, there’s also no “right” to join the Air Force.