The Air Force has given an atheist airman until November to take his enlistment oath, which includes the phrase “so help me God.” If he refuses, he will not be allowed to rejoin his unit. Atheist groups have taken up the unnamed airman’s cause, but he may find himself caught in a battle over the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.
The American Humanist Association (AHA) has written to inspectors general for the Air Force and Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, arguing the airman’s constitutional rights have been violated. The airman’s terms of service expire in November, and AHA claims his commanding officers rejected his written re-enlistment oath on Aug. 25 because he crossed out the words “so help me God.”
Article VI of the U.S. Constitution states “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Monica Miller, an attorney with the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, told the Air Force that her organization will sue if the airman is barred from re-enlisting.
Air Force spokeswoman Rose Richeson told the Air Force Times on Sept. 9 that the Air Force has asked Defense Department lawyers to review the oath requirement. The controversy has become the latest front in an ongoing battle over religious freedom in the military, packaged and painted in starkly different ways by both sides.
AHA and similar groups are known for protesting virtually any kind of expression, including Bibles on officers’ desks, that identifies a leader’s religious affiliation while in his or her official capacity. This summer, a Freedom From Religion Foundation complaint led the Navy Exchange to remove Bibles donated by Gideons International from rooms in base lodges. An outcry prompted Navy leadership to order the Bibles returned last month.
Evangelicals often see such cases as a growing hostility toward Christians in the military, while atheist groups claim they’re fighting an ingrained culture of religious fundamentalism that may make non-Christians feel uncomfortable.
The most recent Air Force battle occurred in March, when a cadet at the Air Force Academy voluntarily removed a Bible verse from the whiteboard on his dorm room door after someone complained to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which notified Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson. Because the cadet had a leadership position, the Academy decided he could not write a Bible verse on his door.
The reenlistment oath poses a different question, but it’s no less nuanced. The Air Force Times reported Wednesday that neither the Army nor the Navy requires soldiers to say “so help me God” in their enlistment oaths. The Department of Defense doesn’t require it. A quiet change to Air Force regulations in October 2013, though, removed the option for airmen not to say the phrase—because a United States law requires it.
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody told the Air Force Times that the Air Force is “more than willing” to work with the airman, but “we have to comply with the law.”
The Air Force seems to have taken the stand that not even recent Department of Defense orders relaxing enforcement can ignore the law and circumvent Congress, though MRFF president and activist Mikey Weinstein calls following the law a “pathetically partisan, conservative theocratic agenda.” Weinstein wrote to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on behalf of 17 Air Force officers concerned about the oath.
“‘Believe or be gone’ was not the motto of our founders, and it’s not an idea that our predecessors fought and died for,” Weinstein said. He also claimed the Air Force policy amounts to “deliberately leaning the singular most lethal organization ever to exist on this planet towards a reflection of ISIS.”
— by Andrew Branch