Air Force drops requirement to use 'So help me God' in oaths

Air Force changes policy after airman crosses out "So help me God" from reenlistment papers in Nevada

There are no atheists in a foxhole, goes the old military saw, but there is a place for them in the Air Force, which has decided to make the words “So help me God,” optional in oaths.

The action allows enlisted members and officers to delete the words “So help me God,” from their oaths. The Air Force’s decision comes after an advocacy group threatened to take legal action on behalf of an atheist airman in Nevada who crossed out the words on his reenlistment papers and ran into problems.  

“We take any instance in which airmen report concerns regarding religious freedom seriously,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said in a statement on Wednesday. “We are making the appropriate adjustments to ensure our airmen's rights are protected.”

The Constitution, in Article II, defines the oath of office for incoming presidents, which does not include the phrase. It does allow the option of affirming rather than swearing the oath. Only one president, Franklin Pierce, is believed to have affirmed rather than sworn the oath.

Last month, the airman in the Nevada case crossed out the phrase in reenlistment papers when he tried to re-up at Creech Air Force Base. He also did not include the phrase in his oath, so officials of his unit said they couldn’t accept his reenlistment.

Previously, the Air Force had allowed affirmation, but that language was dropped in Oct. 30, 2013, and officials told the Air Force Times, which spotlighted the case, that the law required the phrase “So help me God.” Because it was part of a law, they said, congressional action was needed to omit the words.

With groups threatening to sue, the Air Force said it requested an opinion from the Department of Defense general counsel, and that the ruling was that an individual may strike or omit the words “So help me God” from an enlistment or appointment oath if preferred. The Air Force said it will update the paperwork to reflect the policy.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an Albuquerque, N.M.-based group, had protested the policy of forcing an oath to God as unconstitutional. It called the change in Air Force policy a “resounding victory.”

THE OATH:

"I, _____, 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

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