Secular humanists have scored another victory as the United States Air Force recently announced that it is eliminating the contentious phrase “So help me God” from its oath of enlistment. Also, the phrase will not be compulsory in oaths taken by officers who are being commissioned.
After the unidentified airman at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada was refused enlistment for objecting to the religious phrase in September, the case that eventually led to this victory for secular humanists, Raw Story rightly pointed out that the religious phrase was in fact a recent innovation. Up until October 2013, oath takers were not compelled to include God in their lives against their wishes. In fact, other wings of the United States military usually leave it to the oath taker to decide whether or not to include the phrase.
The Pledge of Allegiance, too, has faced similar challenges from atheists in recent years, as its original draft did not have the phrase “under God” and it was only during the 1950s that it was incorporated.
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An atheist airman at Nevada’s Creech Air Force Base was denied reenlistment in August for refusing to take an oath that includes the phrase “so help me God.” American Humanist Association’s lawyer Monica Miller sent a letter to the Inspector General of the Air Force and Creech AFB, saying the airman should be allowed to reenlist without necessarily having to swear by a deity. She also demanded that the airman concerned be provided a secular oath instead. Miller stated that AHA will be compelled to sue if the airman is not allowed to reenlist.
According to the AHA, the unidentified airman was informed on August 25 that the Air Force would reject his reenlistment contract because he had scratched out the phrase “so help me God.” Allegedly, the airman was told that either he would have to sign the religious oath on the contract without any modifications and recite the religious oath concluding with the phrase he objected to or leave the Air Force. AHA described the incident as unconstitutional and unacceptable.
“The government cannot compel a nonbeliever to take an oath that affirms the existence of a supreme being. Numerous cases affirm that atheists have the right to omit theistic language from enlistment or reenlistment contracts,” said Miller.
AHA’s letter also drew attention to a silent update last year where the Air Force rules overriding reenlistments required all airmen to swear an oath to God, though it allowed individuals to leave out the religious concluding phrase if they wanted to do so due to their personal beliefs. However, that inclusion was removed in October 2013. Currently, AFI lists only the active-duty oath for enlistment, without offering airmen any option not to swear by a deity.
“Reciting ‘So help me God’ in the reenlistment and commissioning oaths is a statutory requirement under Title 10 USC 502. 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,’” said Air Force spokeswoman Rose Richeson.
The Air Force has said that it will not change its oath and make the concluding phrase optional unless Congress changes the statute that mandates it. Yet, Miller noted that Article VI of the Constitution forbids conducting religious tests to hold an office or public trust.
“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.
She also said that taking an oath that the airman does not believe in to begin with, would prove him to be dishonest.
“This airman shows integrity, commitment to the nation, and respect for religion in standing firm for a secular oath that reflects his true values and intentions,” said Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers and a board member of the AHA.
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