Under Pentagon guidelines, American servicemen and women who re-enlist are required to sign a specific written oath. In the Air Force, that's proven to be a bit more controversial than expected.
The oath seems pretty straightforward. Signers swear to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic"; "bear true faith and allegiance to the same"; and "obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me." But it concludes, "So help me God," and for atheists, that's a problem.
In the Army and Navy, Americans have the discretion to omit those final four words without penalty, but the Air Force has made it mandatory. In fact, as we discussed over the weekend, an airman was recently told he would be excluded from military service, regardless of his qualifications, unless he does as the Air Force requires and swears an oath to God.
At least, that was the policy. Abby Ohlheiser reported late yesterday that the Air Force has agreed to change its approach.
After an airman was unable to complete his reenlistment because he omitted the part of a required oath that states "so help me God," the Air Force changed its instructions for the oath. Following a review of the policy by the Department of Defense General Counsel, the Air Force will now permit airmen to omit the phrase, should they so choose. That change is effective immediately, according to an Air Force statement.
In a written statement, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said, "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." She added that Air Force officials are "making the appropriate adjustments to ensure our Airmen's rights are protected."
It's worth emphasizing that the Air Force didn't have a lot of choice -- it was facing the prospect of a lawsuit officials were likely to lose.
Remember, the U.S. Constitution -- the one the military supports and defends, and which trumps Defense Department regulations and forms -- says quite explicitly that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
And yet, the Air Force, which has been embroiled in religious controversy before, was applying a religious test, making an oath to God a condition for military service.
As for the unnamed airman who was prepared to go to court over this, his paperwork "will be processed to completion," the Air Force said yesterday.
Postscript: This resolution will likely disappoint some in the religious right movement, who had rallied behind the Air Force's policy. The American Family Association's Bryan Fischer recently said, "There is no place in the United States military for those who do not believe in the Creator." He added, "A man who doesn't believe in the Creator … most certainly should not wear the uniform."
One wonders what Fischer might have said to Pat Tillman.