Amid the controversy surrounding an airman who was recently refused re-enlistment because he would not dishonestly swear to a deity in which he does not believe, the Air Force has done the right thing.
Though the Air Force previously claimed that it would not change AFI 36-2606, which requires those who are enlisting or re-enlisting to end their oath by swearing to an invisible bearded genie in the sky, could not be changed without Congressional approval. Fortunately, the weight of public scrutiny can be heavy, at times.
Previously, airmen were given the option to omit the phrase. Until the AFI was changed on October 30, 2013, the relevant section read, “Note: Airmen may omit the words ‘so help me God,’ if desired for personal reasons.” However, after that date, airmen no longer have the option to choose not to swear to a deity.
“Reciting ‘So help me God’ in the re-enlistment and commissioning oaths is a statutory requirement under Title 10 USC 502,” Air Force spokeswoman Rose Richeson explained. 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.’”
Despite prior claims that Congress would need to act in order to ensure the civil rights of all airmen, on Wednesday their Air Force released a statement announcing that enlisted airmen and officers may now omit “So help me God” from their oaths if they so choose.
“We take any instance in which Airmen report concerns regarding religious freedom seriously,” said Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James. “We are making the appropriate adjustments to ensure our Airmen’s rights are protected.”
“The Air Force will be updating the instructions for both enlisted and commissioned Airmen to reflect these changes in the coming weeks, but the policy change is effective now. Airmen who choose to omit the words ‘So help me God’ from enlistment and officer appointment oaths may do so.”
The statement reads that the airman who was recently denied the chance to serve his country over religious matters will be permitted to re-enlist without disregarding the importance of his position by lying in his oath.
The Air Force requested the review following a ceremony at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, in which an enlisted Airman struck out the words, “So help me God” on the Department of Defense Form 4 and did not include them in his verbal oath. The Airman’s unit was unable to process his paperwork due to the guidance in Air Force Instruction 36-2606, re-enlistment in the United States Air Force, which prohibited any omissions. Now that the Department of Defense General Counsel has provided an opinion, the Airman’s enlistment paperwork will be processed to completion,” the statement explained.
“We are pleased that the U.S. Department of Defense has confirmed our client has a First Amendment right to omit the reference to a supreme being in his re-enlistment oath,” Monica Miller, an attorney with the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, beamed in an emailed statement.
Thank you, United States Air Force for fixing this grievous error. While this should not have happened in the first place, it is truly good news that this problem caused by irresponsible amendments to AFI 36-2606 has been amended. All of sound mind and body who wish to serve, should be able to serve — period.