Airman Reportedly Denied Reenlistment For Failing To Say ‘So Help Me God’
It would appear that someone needs to introduce the Air Force to Article VI of the Constitution.
The Air Force Times is reporting that an enlisted member of the Air Force has apparently been denied reenlistment in the military because he refuses to say ‘so help me God’ at the end of the oath that soldiers and airmen are required to take:
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.
The unidentified airman’s story has been picked up by other media outlets, including USA Today, The Washington Post, and The Huffington Post, none of whom have as of yet been able to obtain official confirmation of the incident from Air Force officials. However, assuming that the facts that are being reported are true, it seems fairly apparent that the service’s actions, while apparently authorized and required by Federal Law, are most likely unconstitutional.
To start at the beginning, the oath that all service members are required to take upon entering the service or reenlisting is set forth at 10 USC 502(a), which states as follows:
(a) Enlistment Oath.— Each person enlisting in an armed force shall take the following oath:
“I, XXXXXXXXXX, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
There has been some suggestion in some of the reading I’ve done on this case since first learning of it last night that the oath was changed by Congress some time last year, thus requiring a change in the Air Force regulations. However, the preliminary research I’ve been able to do indicates that the ‘so help me God’ language has been part of the statutes since at least 2011, if not earlier. Despite the statute, though, the service branches have each apparently adopted regulations that state that an enlistee can be given the option of omitting that language if it is contrary to their beliefs, which is an important point not only for people who might be atheists but also for certain sects of Christianity that have objections to swearing to an oath. For example, Army Regulation 601-210 states as follows:
A commissioned officer of any service will administer the Oath of Enlistment in DD Form 4 orally, in English, to each application. Make a suitable arrangement to ensure that the oath is administered in a dignified manner and in proper surroundings. display the U.S. flag prominently near the officer giving the oath. The words “So help me God” may be omitted for persons who desire to affirm rather than to swear to the oath.
There are apparently comparable versions of this regulation, and the opt-out provision in the last sentence, for the Navy and the Marine Corps. There was also apparently a similar opt-out provision in the comparable Air Force regulation until its most recent revision in October 2013 at which point it was removed for reasons that haven’t been made clear at this point. The effect of that removal, though, is that no person who wishes to enlist, or re-enlist, in the Air Force can do so without agreeing to say the words “so help me God” whether or not they have a religious or philosophical objection to doing so. Notwithstanding the fact that service members do give up certain rights when the enter the military — they are forbidden, for example, from campaigning for a political candidate while in uniform, as one Ron Paul supporter who did just that found out in 2012 — it seems clear that this is unconstitutional.
Article VI, Clause 3 of the Constitution states quite clearly that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” While this is generally taken to mean that Congress could not pass a law that someone who is an atheist or a Muslim could not hold a government position, it also means that no person can be required to do anything that acknowledges a religious belief. Since Federal law requires every enlistee to take an oath before they are considered a member of the military, any requirement that they acknowledge a religious belief of any kind strikes me as being patently unconstitutional.
As The Washington Post notes, this isn’t the first time that the Air Force in particular as run afoul of religious liberty issues:
The Air Force, in particular, has faced intense scrutiny for what some believe is a preferred status for Christians in the service and at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Critics, including Michael Weinstein’s Military Religious Freedom Foundation, have in the past lobbied for changes to the way the Air Force references God and the Bible. For example, in 2011, the group helped to successfully eliminate an Air Force nuclear training program that taught ethics using Bible passages and religious figures for reference.
And in the same month that the Air Force’s enlistment oath rules changed to make the “so help me God” portion mandatory, the Air Force Academy announced that it would allow its cadets to opt out of the very same phrase in the honor code.
Those changes, however, have angered some conservatives and evangelicals in and out of the Air Force, who believe that many accommodations designed to protect religious minorities in the service violate the Christian majority’s right to religious freedom.
A 2012 Air Force Times survey about perceptions of religious freedom in the service found both atheists and Christians in the Air Force complaining of a need to “walk on eggshells” about the issue.
As McClatchy reported, conservative groups and Republicans in Congress heavily criticized the Air Force for a rule change that prohibited commanding officers from “the actual or apparent use of their positions to promote their religious convictions to their subordinates.”
While conservatives argued that the regulation prevented those officers from expressing their religious views, the regulation’s supporters believe that it’s necessary, given the hierarchical nature of military culture. As of May, that rule was under review by the Air Force.
I’m not sure what it is about the Air Force that seems to engender these types of conflicts, perhaps others can comment on that. Assuming that the reports about this Airman are true, though, it seems pretty clear that the service has put itself in the middle of yet another church-state conflict that could be easily avoided if they only complied with the Constitution.