Air Force drops 'so help me God' requirement, will allow airman to re-enlist
WASHINGTON — The Air Force announced Wednesday it would drop a requirement for airmen to say “so help me God” in oaths, backtracking after an airman had been denied re-enlistment when he crossed it out on a form last month.
Air Force officials previously told the airman, based at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., that U.S. law required the phrase to be included in the oath. The case came to light after the airman sought representation from the American Humanist Association, a Washington-based organization that advocates for what it calls “an ethical and life-affirming philosophy free of belief in any gods.”
Previously, the Air Force allowed troops to opt out of the phrase, as do the other military services.
But the Air Force issued a revised instruction in 2013 that required the phrase, with officials citing the fact that the relevant section of Title 10 of the U.S. Code contains no opt-out.
Legal experts, however, predicted the Air Force would soon backtrack, because the Supreme Court and lower courts have long held that the reference to a deity is optional. Additionally, the U.S. Constitution explicitly forbids use of a “religious test” to hold elected office or a position of public trust.
The announcement comes after the Air Force sought a legal opinion from the Department of Defense General Counsel. The Air Force is updating its written instruction, but the new policy takes effect immediately, officials said Wednesday. The airman’s current term of service is set to end in November.
“We take any instance in which airmen report concerns regarding religious freedom seriously,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said. “We are making the appropriate adjustments to ensure our airmen’s rights are protected.”
Monica Miller, a lawyer for the American Humanist Association, said officials notified her client Wednesday afternoon that he could re-enlist.
“I am very pleased that the Department of Defense has instructed the Air Force to respect the First Amendment rights of our client by allowing him to reenlist with the omission of ‘so help me God,’” she said. “I sincerely hope that this opinion from the DOD settles the issue once and for all.”