Air Force Lifts Requirement For Enlistees To Say ‘So Help Me God’ In Oath
Earlier this month, I noted the case of an unnamed member of the Air Force who had been denied reenlistment because he declined to say “so help me God” at the end of his enlistment oath. As I noted at the time, while this language is set forth in the statute that creates the oath, every other branch of the Armed Forces, including the Air Force until just last year, had allowed enlistees to leave that language out if it conflicted with their religious or philosophical beliefs. Clearly, then, the insistence of the Air Force now that all enlistees must use the language regardless of their beliefs would be unconstitutional, and it seemed as though we might be headed down the road to a Federal lawsuit on the matter. Fortunately, sanity has prevailed in the Air Force and enlistees will now be allowed to omit the language from the oath if they so choose:
Following a review of the policy by the Department of Defense General Counsel, the Air Force will now permit airmen to omit the phrase, should they so choose. That change is effective immediately, according to an Air Force statement.
“We take any instance in which Airmen report concerns regarding religious freedom seriously,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said in the statement. “We are making the appropriate adjustments to ensure our Airmen’s rights are protected.
“The Air Force will be updating the instructions for both enlisted and commissioned Airmen to reflect these changes in the coming weeks, but the policy change is effective now. Airmen who choose to omit the words ‘So help me God’ from enlistment and officer appointment oaths may do so.”
The issue gained national attention in early September after a letter from the American Humanist Association outlined the case of an airman stationed at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada who was unable to complete his reenlistment after striking out the phrase in question on a form. The AHA said it was prepared to sue on religious freedom grounds unless the airman was allowed to reenlist without saying the phrase. The requirement, the AHA argued, violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The issue drew attention to a previously unnoticed rule change: The rules governing the Air Force’s enlistment oaths used to include a note stating that “Airmen may omit the words ‘so help me God,’ if desired for personal reasons.” That exception quietly disappeared in October 2013, after which the Air Force required the inclusion of the full oath for any enlistment or reenlistment.
As Eugene Volokh notes, this is the correct decision. Not just as a matter of policy, because no government agency should be forcing people to make declarations of religious faith against their will, but because it is consistent with the Constitution, with applicable law, and with the practices of every other branch of the military. As I noted when I first wrote about this, the Air Force has had a problem in recent years with what are clearly improper intrusions of religious doctrine and prostelyzing in its ranks, which seems odd in itself because one would think that culturally this would be more likely in the Army or the Marine Corps, but perhaps this is a sign that some degree of sanity is returning to that institution.