The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs is making it optional for cadets to include the phrase “so help me God” in their enlistment oaths after a Nevada atheist crossed out the phrase and was barred from re-enlisting.
An advocacy group took up the airman’s case and threatened to sue, according to the Los Angeles Times. The Secretary of the Air Force approved the policy change on Wednesday and instructed all of its bases to implement it immediately.
“We take any instance in which airmen report concerns regarding religious freedom seriously,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said in a statement. “We are making the appropriate adjustments to ensure our airmen’s rights are protected.”
According to the Air Force Times, an unidentified airman at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada was denied re-enlistment in August when he crossed out the phrase on his written oath and did not say it when reciting it out loud. Air Force regulations do not allow any modifications to the oath, which is spelled out in Air Force rules.
The airman’s case was taken up by the American Humanist Association (AHA), which called the religious requirement unconstitutional.
“The government cannot compel a nonbeliever to take an oath that affirms the existence of a supreme being,” AHA attorney Monica Miller told the Air Force Times. “Numerous cases affirm that atheists have the right to omit theistic language from enlistment or reenlistment contracts.”
“Forcing [the airman] to swear to a supreme being as a condition of his reenlistment is tantamount to a ‘religious test’ and is therefore violative of this constitutional provision as well,” she said.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation called the Air Force’s reversal a “resounding victory,” according to Denver’s Fox 31.
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