If you want to enlist or re-enlist in the U.S. Air Force, you have to take an oath of allegiance, both in writing and aloud. At the end of the oath, you have to say, “so help me God.” You can’t refuse. It’s mandatory. It’s not just an abstract policy, either: It’s being enforced. Recently, according to Air Force Times, an airman at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, who labels himself an atheist, was denied reenlistment because he crossed out the phrase on the written version and refused to say it.
According to the American Humanist Association, the unnamed airman was told [Aug. 25, 2014] that the Air Force would not accept his contract because he had crossed out the phrase “so help me God.” The airman was told his only options were to sign the religious oath section of the contract without adjustment and recite an oath concluding with “so help me God,” or leave the Air Force, the AHA said.
…“The government cannot compel a nonbeliever to take an oath that affirms the existence of a supreme being,” [an attorney for the AHA said.] “Numerous cases affirm that atheists have the right to omit theistic language from enlistment or reenlistment contracts.
…the airman should be allowed to reenlist without having to swear to a deity, and instead given a secular oath. Miller said the AHA is prepared to sue if the airman is not allowed to reenlist.
The “take-the-oath-or-else” requirement reflects a recent change in Air Force policy–a change quietly instituted in 2013, as reported in Air Force Times.
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 said Thursday. 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.’ ”
The Air Force said it cannot change its AFI to make “so help me God” optional unless Congress changes the statute mandating it.
I’m not a fan of oaths or pledges. They seem coercive, rigid and almost medieval to me. As a secular American citizen, I still don’t like the “under God” edition of the Pledge of Allegiance–and I’m usually silent during that portion of the preliminaries, anyway. I also don’t sing the national anthem or “God Bless America.” So, while the perpetuation of these religio-patriotic rituals should have taught me better by now, I’m still shocked by the Air Force’s insistence on its members’ affirmation of and faith in a supreme being.
Of course, I’m not alone in my outrage and in my thinking that this “so-help-me-God” policy has to be unconstitutional. In a recent article published by AlterNet, Michael Weinstein, who leads the civil rights organization Military Religious Freedom Foundation, writes:
…Such reprehensible examples of blatant religious coercion fly in the face of the Constitution of the United States of America and an enormous amount of related Constitutional case law stretching back at least 125 years. Indeed, the bulk of the First Amendment is devoted to our guaranteed freedom of religion (or freedom therefrom, if one so chooses). There is the Establishment Clause, which explicitly prohibits compulsory religious oaths, and then there is the Free Exercise Clause, which prevents a person from having to submit to coerced practices and affirmations of a scathingly sectarian nature. Let us neither forget the “No Religious Test” mandate of Clause 3, Article VI of the Constitution which, by itself, would be wholly dispositive here of the USAF’s vile iniquity. Indeed, the issue of religious oaths has long been settled via bedrock legal precedents fortifying Constitutional equal protection which formidably underscores the already unequivocal guarantees laid out in our Constitution.
To some, “so help me God” is no big deal, and I’ve been told, many times, that my objection to the whole “God thing” in government proceedings is frivolous and unpatriotic. I disagree. And this latest development–requiring members of the military to swear an oath under the guidance of God–is worse yet. It’s just too close to “Onward Christian Solders” for comfort.