Man in the clouds? More like pie in the sky for one atheist airman.
A humanist group is threatening legal action this week after a nonbelieving service member in the U.S. Air Force was allegedly denied reenlistment because he omitted the phrase “so help me God” from his contract.
In a letter to Air Force personnel Tuesday, a legal team that represents the American Humanist Association (AHA) blasted what it called a “violation” of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause, citing numerous court decisions that affirm the rights of atheists to avoid references to the supernatural in legal matters. “It is well settled that the government cannot compel a person to take an oath that invokes a supreme being,” Monica Miller, an attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, wrote. “The Establishment Clause specifically prohibits the government from requiring a non-believer to take an oath that affirms the existence of God.”
The service member, whose name has been redacted from the letter, omitted the theistic reference from his reenlistment contract last month. According to Miller, he claims he was told by his superiors that he must either say the words “so help me God” or leave the Air Force. The AHA, the secular civil rights group that promotes “good without a god,” said it was made aware of the service member’s situation by the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. The member is currently stationed at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada.
According to USA Today, the incident has not been confirmed by the Air Force base or the Pentagon. A request to Creech Air Force Base for comment was not immediately returned.
The situation could be the result of a recent update to the Air Force’s active duty oath. The oath had previously included an exception allowing airmen to omit the phrase “so help me God” if they so desired. However, that exception was quietly dropped in an update to the oath made on Oct. 30, 2013. An Air Force spokeswoman confirmed to Military.com that “Airmen are no longer authorized to omit the words ‘So help me God.’” Taking the oath is a requirement for all service members enlisting or re-enlisting in the Air Force.
In a statement Thursday, Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, who also serves on the AHA board, commended the service member’s courage. After all, what could be more American than standing one’s ground? “This Airman shows integrity, commitment to the nation, and respect for religion in standing firm for a secular oath that reflects his true values and intentions,” Topry said.
Miller ends her letter by saying that the service member’s commanding officers may be sued in federal court if a secular oath is not administered.
Read the full AHA letter here.