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Atheist airman must swear 'so help me God' or get out in November

September 10, 2014 (Photo Credit: image Credit)

An atheist airman at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada has until November to change his mind and swear a reenlistment oath to God, the Air Force said.

The unnamed airman was denied reenlistment Aug. 25 for refusing to take an oath that concludes with the phrase “so help me God,” the American Humanist Association said in a Sept. 2 letter to the inspectors general for the Air Force and Creech. In her letter, Monica Miller, an attorney with the AHA’s Apignani Humanist Legal Center, said the airman should be given the choice to reenlist by swearing a secular oath. She said the AHA will sue if the airman is not allowed to reenlist.

In a Sept. 5 email, Air Force spokeswoman Rose Richeson said the airman is still serving and will continue to do so for at least two more months.

“The airman’s term of service expires in November 2014,” Richeson said. “He has until this time to complete the Department of Defense Form 4 in compliance with the Title 10 USC 502.”

The four-page DD Form 4, which is titled “Enlistment/Reenlistment Document, Armed Forces of the United States,” contains a “confirmation of enlistment or reenlistment” oath that reads, “I, [insert name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

The AHA said the airman crossed out the last four words in that oath, and was told Aug. 25 that the Air Force would not accept it for that reason. 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 AHA said that is unconstitutional and unacceptable and that Article VI of the Constitution prohibits requiring religious tests to hold an office or public trust.

The Air Force used to allow airmen to omit the phrase “so help me God” if they so chose. But an Oct. 30, 2013, update to Air Force Instruction 36-2606, which spells out the active-duty oath of enlistment, dropped that option. Since that quiet update to the AFI, airmen have been required to swear an oath to a deity when they enlist or reenlist.

The Air Force said last week that the change was made to bring its oath in line with the statutory requirement under Title 10 USC 502. The Air Force said it cannot change its AFI to make “so help me God” optional unless Congress changes the statute mandating the oath.

The Air Force has not answered questions — first asked Sept. 4 — on the circumstances that led to the rule change, such as when the Air Force realized the opt-out clause violated statutory requirements, who brought this to the Air Force’s attention and when, and whether the statute ever allowed service members to opt out of saying “so help me God.”

In an email late Tuesday, Richeson said the Air Force is asking the Defense Department’s General Counsel for a legal review of the rule.

“The opinion will help inform the future decision,” she said.

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