Air Force Oath: Atheists Protest Right Thing the Wrong Way

The American Humanist Association — the same group vying for an atheist chaplain — has threatened to sue the Air Force because the military enlistment oath ends in “So help me God,” and an Airman at Creech AFB lined out part of the oath on his enlistment form:

According to the AHA, the unnamed airman was told Aug. 25 that the Air Force would not accept his contract because he had crossed out the phrase “so help me God.”…

That is unconstitutional and unacceptable, the AHA said.

“The government cannot compel a nonbeliever to take an oath that affirms the existence of a supreme being,” Miller said. “Numerous cases affirm that atheists have the right to omit theistic language from enlistment or reenlistment contracts.”

They’re correct. The problem with the AHA’s position is they demonstrated an amazing lack of comprehension of the law — and basic public relations skills.

After three pages of pontificating in their demand letter, the AHA finally acknowledged that US law — not Air Force policy — dictates the content of the oath of office. In an unusually whimsical turn, however, the lawyers then declare the Air Force is qualified to judge the constitutionality of the law and interpret its application:

Naturally, the Constitution trumps any statutory or regulatory language…The fact that [US law] include[s] the surplus phrase “so help me God” does not mean that the Air Force must require officer candidates or enlistment/re-enlistment candidates to state those words…

Since the AHA lawyers seemed to miss the lesson in high school American government class, the US Supreme Court (the Judicial Branch), not the US Air Force (in the Executive Branch), is the final arbiter of the constitutionality of a law passed by Congress (the Legislative Branch).

Then, the AHA attempts to threaten not just the Air Force, but also the wallets of the individual troops involved [italics original, emphasis added]:

Because the law in this area is well established, those commanders may be sued in their individual capacities and be personally liable for damages along with attorneys’ fees.

That’s a pretty cheap shot against US troops and their families — and one that has no basis in law. But atheists have discovered that threats to bankrupt someone may inspire change, even if the change is unnecessary or contrary to the law.

So why would the AHA do such a thing?

Because it worked last time.

A similar AHA complaint last year, worded much the same, successfully resulted in an officer candidate not having to say “so help me God” during his commissioning. What the AHA doesn’t say (because they probably don’t even realize it) is their complaint and the Air Force reaction to it generated an official military review of the oath requirement by the Air Force JAG (mentioned here last year). The result: The Air Force realized the regulation containing the oath permitted exceptions the law did not.

So AFI 36-2606 (AF official site) was altered after that incident to reflect the law — removing the portion that said an Airman could omit the phrase “so help me God” because the law did not allow that. (Interestingly, one left-leaning website blamed the change on “pressure from evangelicals in the service,” rather than the atheist threats.)  That controversy also preceded the US Air Force Academy’s oath “scandals,” in which USAFA claimed part of an oath was changed to be “optional.”

The totality of “oath controversies” inspired a Congressman to propose a bill essentially reminding the US Department of Defense it doesn’t have the authority to change the oaths of office.

Even some legal “experts” note the Air Force is technically correct.  It is US law, not Air Force policy, requiring the oath.  They almost universally agree the law would not withstand judicial review — but whether a law stands is the purview of the Congress who wrote it and the Supreme Court if asked to review it, not the US Air Force.  This is something even a few “grassroots” activists understood when they started a White House petition in response — a petition that calls on Congress, not the Air Force, to change the law:

Congress should amend Title 10 § 502 so this is no longer a requirement in the oath.

Bravo for comprehension (though its a White House petition calling for Congress to do something…).

There are several lessons here.

First, the AHA and other “militant” secularist groups go for easy targets. They think it will cost time and money to change the law, so they’re trying to get the Air Force to ignore the law — an easier, cheaper method to get the same results, in their minds. It is laughable to think the AHA would encourage the US military to be its own interpreter of the law in a context unfavorable to the AHA’s ideology.

Second, as has been observed many times, anti-theistic groups have come to rely on the “power of the purse” to push their ideology. Rather than persuasion or claims to a moral right, the groups threaten their victims financially — and individually — to extort their desired end. It very often works, because even a successful defense is potentially expensive, and the “charitable” AHA will likely have more funds than the individuals they are threatening.

Third, the AHA needs to be careful what it asks for. It sent a legal letter demanding compliance with the law last year. Upon review, the Air Force realized the law required the opposite of what the AHA wanted.

Fourth, the AHA bases its credibility on social media. In an apparent attempt to bolster its claim, the AHA cited an “online following of over 315,000,” which closely matches their current Facebook total of 322,000 “likes.” That’s a comical claim to legitimacy even in this internet age.

Fifth, there’s no popular story to which Mikey Weinstein won’t lay claim. A few days after the AHA letter was made public, Weinstein started fundraising using the AHA story — conveniently omitting the fact he had nothing to do with it. To the AHA’s credit, they did not claim the oath requirement was the result of “theological oppression” or Christians trying to take over the country, as Weinstein did:

This disingenuous evangelical, fundamentalist Fifth Column loves to hide behind phrases like “family,” “Judeo-Christian,” “values” and “tradition” to disguise their ignoble goal, which remains the absolute theological takeover of the Pentagon, White House, and Capitol Hill.

As off-base as the AHA threats are, Weinstein still manages to come across as the AHA’s crazy uncle.

Sixth, the AHA needs better lawyers and public relations personnel. Better lawyers would have prevented them from unjustly and incorrectly threatening the livelihoods of US troops — a veritable public relations nightmare. PR also would have helped them communicate their message far more receptively — because it turns out many people actually agree with them, just not their method of delivery.

The phrase “so help me God” should be optional, just as should the ability to “swear or affirm.” The AHA is correct in that regard. To change that requirement, the AHA needs to call on Congress to change the law, not threaten Air Force families with financial ruin.

Despite the AHA’s pontifications and Mikey Weinstein’s tin foil hat conspiracy theories, the human liberty of religious freedom dictates no man should be required to swear or proclaim a deity. The US military, for its part, should be expected to follow the law — whether the law requires specific wording in an oath, as in this case, or specific recognition of religious liberty, as in other cases.

Where the law conflicts with religious liberty, it should be changed.

Also at the Religion News Service (by Kimberly Winston), al Jazeera, Deseret News, and the Washington Post.



  • Going after the troops involved is allowable under the law becasue you losde soverigh protection when you violate known Constional law, Those folks are also viloating their oaths because that oath requires that the defend the Constitution and they are willfully ignoring that duty

    It is legal the same sitation as if some fool decided to enforce laws against photographing police or Blasphemy, the laws are still on the books but Court decisions have made them unenforceable.

    That part of the regulation became unenforceable in 1961, likley before any of the people involved were born The SC made it so in a 9-0 decision that was not in the least ambiguous in Torcaso Vs Watkins

    Tradition backs the young man up also since that part has been optional since it was written and three of the four services still consider it optional. Before the Cold war the oath made no reference to god at all.

  • The AF reversed course Tuesday at the direction of DOD.
    Will we ever find out what idiot changed the AFI?