Cadets of the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado will no longer be required to say the words “so help me God” as part of the Academy “Honor Oath.” The policy on the oath was changed after the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) complained to the Academy administration that the oath violated the right to religious freedom guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, and seeks the removal of the phrase altogether.
Presenting a compromise solution, Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, the superintendent of the Academy said the changes were made to uphold the freedom of religion of the cadets and the constitutional separation of church and state. The oath, to be taken annually, reads:
“We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does. Furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and to live honorably, so help me God.”
Lt. Gen. Johnson's statement said: “Here at the Academy, we work to build a culture of dignity and respect, and that respect includes the ability of our cadets, airmen and civilian airmen to freely practice and exercise their religious preference – or not. So, in the spirit of respect, cadets may or may not choose to finish the Honor Oath with 'So help me God.'
The MRFF has claimed that cadets were pressured into referring to “God” as their oath would not otherwise be considered legal. Former military lawyer Michael “Mikey” Weinstein, who is the founding president of MRFF, asserted that it was not a proper solution and would continue to seek its removal.
“What does it mean, 'optional'? The best thing is to eliminate it,” said Weinstein, who argues that if the Cadet Wing honor chair, who leads the oath says the words, those who do not follow may be pressured and criticized. In an interview with Megyn Kelly on FOX News, Weinstein said the inclusion of a reference to God is illegal, citing Clause Three of Article Six of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids a religious test for “any position in the federal government.”
Neither the U.S. Military Academy at West Point nor the U.S. Naval Academy make any reference to God or religion in their respective “honor” oaths.
The MRFF has challenged the U.S. Department of Defense over issues such as proselytizing by senior officers and chaplains, and the employ of religious symbolism in military publications. In 2011, the U.S. Air Force ended an officer training course that had been employing Biblical passages when discussing the ethics of war. In response to MRFF lobbying, the Department of Defense has restricted the sale of Bibles published with military insignia.
In response to angry messages directed by Christians against Weinstein, MRFF board member Mike Farrell issued a statement: “No one here is anti-Christian. We just happen to believe that people like you cannot be allowed to shove your belief system down the throat of men and women at the U.S.A.F.A or anywhere in the U.S military in defiance of our Constitution.”
In a panel discussion hosted by FOX News presenter Gretchen Carlson, Dave Muscato of American Atheists clarified that while any Christian serviceman or woman would be able to say “so help me God,” it could not be an official part of the text of the oath. In response to Carlson's assertion that America was a Christian-majority country, Muscato replied that this did not entitle the Christian majority to force their beliefs on others.
Case: Jefferson/Madison (represented by the MRFF) vs. Believers (God, Allah, JC fail to answer summons.. again). Kudos to the MRFF for seeking not "political correctness" but true Constitutionalism in the U.S. military. Some atheists may dismiss this victory as trivial, but if you are someone who takes oaths seriously, then an oath without a reference to God allows the freedom of a solider to rely upon his or her own conscience and be accountable as such. The fulfillment of duty becomes more of a personal responsibility and achievement than it was when a non-existent deity's assistance was sought, and without evidence, credited for the soldier's own high moral character. As it happens, prior inquiries (personal, never official) into why the said deity failed soldiers who are dishonorably discharged have had to be duly dropped as the accused failed to appear and testify..
A secular democracy is also an end in itself. The first amendment to the United States Constitution remains the most important legislation in the democratic world- it set itself up as the badge of true democracy, real secularism. Its place in history in undeniable, but what is more important is that its character should remain unaltered. There must be only one version of the First Amendment, and to protect it, me must all remain, at least in spirit, First Amendment Absolutists.
Dean Van Drasek
Great to see this. Wish these small steps forward would get more mainstream coverage.