An atheist airman was denied re-enlistment to the U.S. Air Force last month after to refusing to take an oath containing the words “so help me God,” according to the American Humanist Organization.
The AHA says the unnamed airman, who was stationed at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, should be allowed to re-enlist without being forced to acknowledge a deity.
In a Sept. 2 letter to the inspectors general for the Air Force, Monica Miller, an attorney from the the AHA’s Apignani Humanist Legal Center, said the airman should have the alternative to swear to a secular oath. If that option is not provided and the airman is not allowed to re-enlist, the AHA is prepared to sue the Air Force, the letter said.
No Air Force official has yet confirmed that the airman at Creech was denied re-enlistment.
But Air Force spokeswoman Rose Richeson did tell USA Today that reciting the oath as written was required by law.
That has not always been the case. The AHA letter also calls attention to a change made to the Air Force Instructions, or AFI, in October 2013. The change to rule 36-2606 dropped an exception to recitation of that oath that said, "Note: Airmen may omit the words 'so help me God,' if desired for personal reasons.”
“Reciting ‘so help me God’ in the re-enlistment and commissioning oaths is a statutory requirement under Title 10 USC 502,” 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,’” she added.
The Air Force said it cannot make the words “so help me God” optional again unless Congress changes the statute that mandates the oath be administered as written.
That is unacceptable to Miller.
“The government cannot compel a nonbeliever to take an oath that affirms the existence of a supreme being,” she said. “Numerous cases affirm that atheists have the right to omit theistic language from enlistment or re-enlistment contracts.”
Requiring such an oath is tantamount to a “religious test” that is forbidden under Article VI of the Constitution, Miller argues.
Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, said in a press release quoted by the Huffington Post, that the airman showed "integrity, commitment to the nation, and respect for religion in standing firm for a secular oath that reflects his true values and intentions.”
Miller also noted that to recite an oath one doesn’t believe would be dishonest and the airman should be commended for refusing to do so.
Last August, the Air Force Academy's Colorado Springs campus caved to another complaint from the AHA and allowed its 4,000 cadets to opt out of the "so help me God" clause in the honor code during their annual oaths. The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers also filed a complaint in that case.