UPDATE, 2014.09.19: The U.S. Air Force airmen mentioned below was eventually allowed to reenlist, according to later stories. “We take any instance in which airmen report concerns regarding religious freedom seriously,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said. “We are making the appropriate adjustments to ensure our airmen’s rights are protected.”
It was good to hear a positive, constitutional outcome.
(The original blog entry, published 2014.09.10, follows.)
In the past — until October 2013 — the U.S. Air Force’s “Instruction 36-2606” included this phrase: “Airmen may omit the words ‘so help me God,’ if desired for personal reasons”, referring to the oath they must sign. The oath in full is as follows:
“I, [insert name], 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.”
Late last year, the instruction received a “quiet update”, removing the permission to omit the last four words in the oath. Now, at least one airman is being asked to leave the Air Force if he won’t sign the full thing.
The American Humanist Organization drew attention to it: “…on August 25, 2014, the member of the U.S. Air Force opted for a secular affirmation in his reenlistment contract. He was told by his superiors that he must swear to God or leave the Air Force.”
The airman had crossed out the last four words, as previously permitted, before signing his oath. It wasn’t accepted.
“…no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” (emphasis mine)
But then, just in case, the amendments were added, including the First (and probably most well-known), which begins:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
“According to the Air Force’s statement to the independent Air Force Times, Congress would have to change the statute mandating that part of the oath in order for the Air Force to make it optional again.”
I’m (clearly) not a lawyer, but I think the Air Force’s statement is incorrect. It doesn’t require an act of Congress to remove or negate an unconstitutional bit of law. The courts can do it too.
Famed atheist Richard Dawkins (not a U.S.ian) is having a field day with this, as he should. “US airmen forced to seek help from Sky Fairy”, he tweeted late last night (early morning in Britain). And then a couple of hours later: “US airmen grounded until they seek help from Magic Man in the Sky”. And further, in a reference to Dr. Strangelove: “US Airforce General insists all his men swear oath to protect our Precious Bodily Fluids”. And, just an hour ago: “To prove your fitness to handle supersonic modern machinery + nuclear arms, swear that you have an Imaginary Friend”.
I’ve noticed a conspicuous quiet from the religious right about this, though they should be concerned too. It’s just sheer luck (read: “a century of coercion”) for them that the oath refers to what they think of as “their” god; it could just as easily be — and is, in a few other countries — another religion’s god.
(Note: I kind of like James Madison’s original wording for what became part of the First Amendment:
“The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretence, infringed.”)