In a new, unexplained shift, the Air Force is compelling its troops to use the phrase ‘so help me God’ in their oaths or be discharged.
For years, allegations of religious intolerance have swirled around the U.S. Air Force, with officers accused both of pushing evangelical Christianity on the troops—and of hampering Christians’ practice.
Now, a new case threatens to reignite the firestorm. The Air Force has allegedly refused to allow a service member to reenlist, because he refused to use the phrase “so help me God” in his oath, the American Humanist Association asserts.
According to the group, which has come to the defense of the unnamed airman—as Air Force troops are known—commanders told the service member on Aug. 25 that he must use the religious language in his reenlistment contract or leave the military.
The association wrote a letter dated Sept. 2, 2014, on behalf of the airman demanding that he be allowed to reenlist without invoking the religious language. Further, the letter threatens legal action against the airman’s commanders at Creech Air Force Base in the Nevada desert unless they reverse course. The complaint was previously reported by the Air Force Times.
“Because the law in this area is well established, those commanders may be sued in their individual capacities and be personally liable for damages,” Monica Miller, an attorney with the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, wrote in the letter.
“The government cannot compel a nonbeliever to take an oath that affirms the existence of a supreme being,” Miller added.
Miller said during an interview with The Daily Beast that her client’s situation is not unprecedented. About a year ago, the Air Force denied reenlistment to a service member for similar reasons, Miller said, but quickly reversed course and allowed the airman to take a secular oath.
Until fairly recently, Miller said that the Air Force used to allow its troops to omit the “so help me God” phrase. But for reasons that are not entirely clear, the service changed its policy in recent months. “No one has been able to clearly articulate why they took that out,” Miller said.
Because there is plenty of legal precedent favoring her client, Miller said that she hopes the case can be settled without going to court. “We’d rather not take this to court,” she said. “We think it’s a pretty straightforward issue… Probably they were following policy, they just need to realize that the policy can’t be applied in an unconstitutional fashion.”
The Air Force did not respond to inquires about the incident. However, more than two dozen current and former servicemen spoke to The Daily Beast about the incident.
Most vigorously defended the air service. But one senior Air Force officer said that if the allegation about the airman in question is true, that it does not reflect well on the service. “I find it outrageous,” said the senior officer, who is a non-practicing, non-church-attending Christian. By and large there is no pressure to conform to a particular religion or even any religion in the service, he said. “I’ve been commissioned now since May ’92 and I’ve never seen any religious pressure. I was a cadet at the Air Force Academy before that for four years and didn’t feel the pressure either,” the officer said. “That said, I’m a Christian, so maybe they didn’t come find me and convert me, but I’m not in the pews on Sundays either. I’ve never seen any pressure on USAF [U.S. Air Force] personnel to be religious.”
While there may not be overt pressure to be religious—or particularly to follow branches of the Christian faith—that does not mean the Air Force can be less than sensitive to followers of other religions, a second former officer added. “In my 30 years in uniform and in my subsequent civilian life in the Air Force, I never saw a commissioned or enlisted member pressure a subordinate on the topic of religion. Never,” the former officer said in an email. “Of course, that does not mean the Air Force neglected to provide access to religious services to those who wished to worship while deployed, etc.”
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