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 atheist airman at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada was denied reenlistment last month for refusing to take an oath containing “so help me God,” the American Humanist Association said Thursday.
And in a Sept. 2 letter to the inspectors general for the Air Force and Creech, Monica Miller, an attorney with the AHA’s Apignani Humanist Legal Center, said 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.
According to the AHA, the unnamed airman was told Aug. 25 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.
That is unconstitutional and unacceptable, the AHA said.
“The government cannot compel a nonbeliever to take an oath that affirms the existence of a supreme being,” Miller said. “Numerous cases affirm that atheists have the right to omit theistic language from enlistment or reenlistment contracts.”
Creech officials referred inquiries to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Officials at Nellis referred questions to Air Force public affairs officers at the Pentagon, who had not confirmed the incident by Thursday night.
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. 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.
Miller pointed out that Article VI of the Constitution prohibits requiring religious tests to hold an office or public trust.
“Forcing [the airman] to swear to a supreme being as a condition of his reenlistment is tantamount to a ‘religious test’ and is therefore violative of this constitutional provision as well,” Miller said.
Miller also said that swearing an oath the airman does not believe in would be dishonest.
“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.