Finally, Some Good News for Atheists in the Military
An atheist airman in Nevada wanted to re-enlist in the Air Force but ran into a problem — he purposefully omitted "so help me God" on his contract.
The airman, who kept his name anonymous, was defended by the American Humanist Association (AHA) after his application was denied based on his refusal to invoke God in his oath. The AHA maintained that requiring airmen to say "so help me God" in their oath was a violation of the Constitution's establishment clause and threatened to sue if the requirement wasn't stricken.
"It is well settled that the government cannot compel a person to take an oath that invokes a supreme being," AHA attorney Monica Miller wrote in a letter to Air Force officials. "The Establishment Clause specifically prohibits the government from requiring a non-believer to take an oath that affirms the existence of God."
The response: The Air Force, after seeking a review of the oath from the Department of Defense General Counsel, announced Wednesday that the phrase "so help me God" was no longer necessary for enlistment re-enlistment.
"We take any instance in which Airmen report concerns regarding religious freedom seriously," Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said in a statement. "We are making the appropriate adjustments to ensure our Airmen's rights are protected."
It was a ruling met with praise from the AHA and, one would assume, the anonymous airman it was working for. "We are pleased that the U.S. Department of Defense has confirmed our client has a First Amendment right to omit the reference to a supreme being in his reenlistment oath," Miller said in a statement. "We hope the Air Force will respect the constitutional rights of Atheists in the future."
Not a complete reversal: Despite the controversy that erupted after the AHA's legal challenge and the resulting backlash from more conservative media outlets (Breitbart headline: "ATHEIST GROUP MAKES AIR FORCE ACCEPT ENLISTMENT OATH WITHOUT 'SO HELP ME GOD'"), the Air Force actually used to provide more flexibility with the oath. Until October 2013, the Washington Post reports, Air Force Instruction 36-2606 (which governs the enlistment oath) included a rule that "airmen may omit the words 'so help me God,' if desired for personal reasons." That was removed in an amendment to the rule by Congress, which also introduced an amendment requiring congressional approval to make any subsequent changes to the oath.
With today's announcement, at least one airman can return to serving his country.
h/t Washington Post