Air Force Faces Legal Battle Over “So Help Me God” Oath

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Sep 8, 2014

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The United States Air Force has forbid an airman from reenlisting because he refused to sign the mandatory oath that contains the words “so help me God,” and legal advocacy groups have protested the decision, arguing that it is both “unconstitutional and unacceptable” to compel an atheist to agree to an oath referencing God. In the face of legal questions about its actions, the Air Force maintained that it has no authority to alter the reenlistment agreement without Congressional approval.

US Airman Refuses “So Help Me God” Oath

The controversy arose in August when an atheist airman stationed at the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada crossed out the words “so help me God” in his reenlistment contract before signing the document. The Air Force responded to the unnamed airman that his amendment was unacceptable, and that he had two options: either sign the religious oath section of the agreement without adjustment, or leave the Air Force.

The Air Force includes “so help me God” under a provision of Air Force Instruction (AFI) 36-2606, which requires the oath be signed by all enlisting airmen. Previously the AFI had included an exception that read, “Note: Airmen may omit the words ‘so help me God,’ if desired for personal reasons,” but the rule was updated on October 30th of last year to remove the exception and mandate the phrase by included. Air Force officials noted that including “so help me God” is a statutory requirement, and claimed that the oath cannot be excluded unless doing so is approved by Congressional vote.

“So Help Me God Oath” Raises Legal Questions

Although the Air Force deflected responsibility back to Congress for its decision to deny the airman reenlistment for crossing out “so help me God,” there are legal questions that challenge this position. First, there seems to be a misunderstanding by the Air Force about the meaning of the term affirmation, and second, the requirement that airmen include the words “so help me God” seems to directly conflict with constitutional protections found in the First Amendment.

In the text of the Congressional statute that establishes the Enlistment Oath, the word “oath” is defined to include the words “or affirmation,” which is an important point because in legal terms an affirmation is “a pledge equivalent to an oath but without reference to a supreme being.”  The language of the enlistment oath includes the phrase “swear or affirm,” which directly contradicts the Air Force’s interpretation that “so help me God” is a necessary component to reenlistment. The constitution supports the use of an affirmation in lieu of an oath to all public officers, including the President and members of Congress, and it is unlikely that the Air Force can defy years of established practice by forbidding its airmen from affirming rather than swearing.

Beyond interpreting the language of the oath, there are concerns about whether or not forcing an airmen to swear an oath to God is constitutional. The First Amendment protections include a separation of church and state, and prohibits the government from taking exclusionary action against atheists, which should apply to this situation. Years of constitutional jurisprudence have forbid religious oaths from being required for public servants at the highest level of government, so it is interesting to see the Air Force take such a strong stance in the matter.

Potential Legal Challenge Over “So Help Me God” Oath

Attorneys with the American Humanist Association (AHA) have taken notice of the situation, and sent a letter on September 2nd requesting the Air Force inspectors general to allow the airman reenlistment. Monica Miller, writing for the AHA, noted, “The government cannot compel a nonbeliever to take an oath that affirms the existence of a supreme being,” and called the Air Force position unacceptable and in violation of the constitution. The AHA also stated it is prepared to sue if the Air Force does not relent and allow the airman to reenlist without swearing “so help me God.”

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