Atheist airman denied reenlistment over religion

Airmen take the Oath of Enlistment during a reenlistment ceremony in December 2013, shortly after the Air Force deleted a clause allowing airmen to omit 'so help me God,' from the oath. An airman at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, was denied reenlistment for crossing out those words on his reenlistment contract. (Senior Airman Brett Clashman / Air Force)

An unnamed airman was denied reenlistment for crossing out the phrase “so help me God” on his contract.  The American Humanist Association (AHA) is calling the Air Forces’ action “unconstitutional and unacceptable.”

According to the Air Force Times, the AHA stated it is prepared to sue for what the organization claims is a violation of the Establishment Clause in the U.S. Constitution, unless the Air Force allows its members to enlist without the religious section of the oath. They allege the airman was told to say the oath or leave the Air Force.

“The government cannot compel a nonbeliever to take an oath that affirms the existence of a supreme being,” Monica Miller, an attorney with the AHA’s Apignani Humanist Legal Center said. “Numerous cases affirm that atheists have the right to omit theistic language from enlistment or reenlistment contracts.”

The AHA’s letter also called attention to a quiet update last year of Air Force rules governing reenlistments, which now require all airmen to swear an 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. Now it does not give airmen the option to omit any sections that you require they swear to a deity.

The Washington Post reported that in a Friday afternoon statement, U.S. Air Force Public Affairs Officer Chris Hoyler said that “the Airman’s term of service expires in November 2014.  He has until this time to complete the Department of Defense Form 4 in compliance with the Title 10 U.S.C. §502.”

The Air Force stated it cannot change its AFI to make “so help me God” optional unless Congress changes the statute mandating that part of the oath so that they could make it optional again.

“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.

A 2012 Air Force Times survey revealed that found both atheists and Christians in the Air Force are complaining of a need to “walk on eggshells” about the issue.

The Air Forces Times reported that while conservatives argued that the regulation prevented those officers from expressing their religious views, the regulation’s supporters believe that it’s necessary, given the hierarchical nature of military culture. The rule is currently under review.


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