An atheist U.S. Air Force member is being denied the opportunity to reenlist because he refuses to swear to God to uphold his duty.
The Air Force Times reported that an unnamed airman at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada was denied reenlistment in August because he crossed out the words “so help me God” on his contract before submitting it.
American Humanist Association attorney Monica Miller wrote to the generals of the Air Force and of Creech AFB on Sep. 2 saying that the airman should be able to sign up to serve his country without having to pledge to any deity. The AHA believes that a secular enlistment form should be available to enlistees.
The organization is prepared to sue the Air Force if it doesn’t make the options available for secular servicemen and women. The AHA said that on Aug. 25, the airman was presented with only two options, sign the oath as written and recite it aloud upon his reinstatement or leave the service.
“The government cannot compel a nonbeliever to take an oath that affirms the existence of a supreme being,” Miller said in her letter. “Numerous cases affirm that atheists have the right to omit theistic language from enlistment or reenlistment contracts.”
To deny the airman that right, she said, would be unconstitutional and unacceptable.
The requirement was only recently cemented into place. In October of 2013, the Air Force quietly modified Air Force Instruction 36-2606, which states that all enlistees must sign the oath to God and swear it aloud. Prior to the change in the regulation, secular and atheist service members were allowed to omit the phrase.
The regulation used to have an addendum that read, “Note: Airmen may omit the words ‘so help me God,’ if desired for personal reasons.” That language has been dropped under pressure from evangelicals in the service.
The Air Force says that it cannot now change the rule back without Congress’ authorization.
Spokesperson Rose Richeson said, “Reciting ‘So help me God’ in the reenlistment and commissioning oaths is a statutory requirement under Title 10 USC 502.” AFI 36-2606, she said, “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 AHA’s Miller pointed out in her letter that by requiring the oath, the Air Force is violating Article VI of the Constitution, which forbids religious tests as a requirement 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,” she wrote.
The Air Force — and in particular the National Air Force Academy — has come under fire in the past for pressuring non-Christian service members to engage in Bible study and for evangelical Christians in the Force proselytizing and attempting to recruit members in Christian groups.
McClatchy newspapers reported in May that Air Force top brass are considering a rule forbidding proselytization and religious pressuring by officers due to consistent complaints from non-Christian members of the service.
[hat-tip to Think Progress]