In October 2013, the United States Air Force adopted policy AFI 36-2606 (available here) that required enlistees and re-enlistees to conclude their enlistment oath with “so help me God.” Prior to that time, an airman could opt for an alternative phrase and omit the “so help me God” language. The “so help me God” language has long been included in the enlistment oath by a 1962 federal statute, 10 USC Section 502.
In recent days, an atheist airman was told by the Air Force that either he will have to take the oath concluding with “so help me God,” or he will be denied his request to re-enlist. As one can expect, the unnamed airman from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada is now poised to take the military to court over this requirement. He is represented by Monica Miller, an attorney with the American Humanist Association, an organization about which I have written on these pages over the years. Ms. Miller has stated, “The government cannot compel a nonbeliever to take an oath that affirms the existence of a supreme being.” Then, in his usual bombastic rhetorical style, Mikey Weinstein, Esq., founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, wrote the following in a letter to Secretary of Defense Hagel regarding this matter:
In a time of increasingly polarized fundamentalist theocratic hostility, what good will be accomplished by deliberately leaning the singular most lethal organization ever to exist on this planet towards a reflection of ISIS? . . . . Any efforts to do so are a disingenuous and disgraceful interpretation of the law, serving and pandering to what is nothing more than a pathetically partisan, conservative theocratic agenda. . . . With a single command directive, Mr. Secretary, you can immediately remediate this bigoted issue and prevent any valuable airmen from being wrongfully discharged from the military for failing a BLATANTLY unlawful religious test.
Emphasis in the original. Other branches of the United States military do not require the reference to God in the oaths, and make the phrase optional. Of course, if I had some healthy cynicism, I could think that the Obama Pentagon mandated the “so help me God” requirement in late 2013 to get it challenged in federal court where a friendly judge would find the requirement unconstitutional, thereby creating a precedent for other courts to follow. An argument could be made that the Article 6, Section 3, of the Constitution bars religious tests to hold office. Specifically, that provision provides:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.
Emphasis added. So could this provision apply to the military? And should it apply? After all, the military is subject to its own Code of Military Justice, and has special courts to hear military cases. While this provision would apply to the Secretary of Defense as a federal executive officer, nothing is stated here regarding its application to members of our nation’s military. Our understanding of the meaning of this provision is quite different from the view of our nation’s Founders. Most Americans do not know that many of the original 13 states had “state” churches. The South was traditionally Anglican, but had a growing Methodist and Baptist population. New England was traditionally Congregationalist. Rhode Island was founded by Roger Williams, a Baptist, as a refuge from the Massachusetts Congregationalists. The middle colonies mixed Catholics in Maryland, Presbyterians and Quakers. Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, and South Carolina paid churches out of the public treasury well into the 19th century. The First Amendment so-called “Establishment Clause,” which has now mutated into meanings unimaginable to our Founders, simply precluded Congress from establishing the Church of the United States as England had done with the Church of England. Further, the purpose of the First Amendment was to prohibit the power of the federal government to advance, for example, Roman Catholic or Anglican doctrines over Baptist ones. Fundamentally, the religious oath provision prohibited a person elected to Congress or to a state legislature from being denied his seat merely for his religious views.
We will see whether Secretary Hagel will issue his directive. But with Mr. Obama’s recent declaration to use American airpower against the Sunni terrorists in the Islamic State to bail out Iranian-backed Shiite terrorist groups, our airmen will truly need to ask “so help me God” in their daily responsibilities. Please continue to pray for our soldiers and airmen, particularly for those who serve in harm’s way.