A member of the U.S. Air Force was denied re-enlistment last month because he crossed out the words ‘so help me God’ on his papers.
The unnamed airman, an atheist, was told to sign the religious oath or find another line of work.
Air Force Times reports this isn’t an old oath. It was just recently added.
Air Force Instruction 36-2606 spells out the active-duty oath of enlistment, which all airmen must take when they enlist or reenlist and ends with “so help me God.” The old version of that AFI included an exception: “Note: Airmen may omit the words ‘so help me God,’ if desired for personal reasons.”
That language was dropped in an Oct. 30, 2013, update to the AFI. The relevant section of that AFI now only lists the active-duty oath of enlistment, without giving airmen any option to choose not to swear an oath to a deity.
“Reciting ‘So help me God’ in the reenlistment and commissioning oaths is a statutory requirement under Title 10 USC 502,” Air Force spokeswoman Rose Richeson said Thursday. 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.’ ”
Writing in the Washington Post today, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh notes that courts have provided exceptions to religious oaths several times.
To be sure, these provisions were for the benefit of Quakers and other groups that oppose oaths for religious reasons, not for the benefit of atheists. But they are not limited to such groups; instead, they represent the view that affirmations are equivalent to oaths, and that what may be said with a “So help me God” may be said without.
Even looking at the statute standing alone, then, the Air Force thus has no business denying people the ability to affirm, which is to say to omit “so help me God.”
Thus, even if a statutory scheme expressly required an oath, with no affirmation as an alternative, I think it would be unconstitutional. But here the statute specifically provides for affirmation; at most, it’s ambiguous, in also including “so help me God” as part of the oath.
For reasons given in part 1 above, that inclusion shouldn’t be seen, even as a simple matter of statutory interpretation, as precluding a no-God affirmation. But the constitutional considerations make it even more clear that any ambiguity should be read in favor of allowing affirmation.