What’s in an oath?

The Air Force Times reported that the United States Air Force has decided to remove the policy that require personnel to end their oath with “so help me God”.  Earlier that month, the Air Force Times also reported that an atheist airman would be denied re-enlistment to the air force because he had refused to complete his oath with the phrase. Such a requirement is quite surprising considering that the US, at least it seems, is secular by law. I do find articles such as the First Amendment, No Religious Test Clause, Treaty of Tripoli, and the many other cases would reaffirm that the phrase is not mandatory. Many other government oaths have this phrase, but unlike the Air Force it isn’t mandatory and is omissible . Even the President can omit it during their oath should they choose so.

Given the previous affirmations that one does not need to swear to god in a government setting, why would the Air Force make it mandatory to begin with? The surprising part is that other US Armed Forces divisions do not need one to swear to god when completing their oath. What’s even more bizarre that is that the Air Force didn’t require it in the past, but updated recently to conform to an old statue.

At the surface one might wonder why it’s a big deal to begin with. The airman could have just said it even though he didn’t believe god. There might have been personnel who did just that in the past. But in this the case the airman clearly felt strongly on the issue and understandably so. I feel that not only did he felt strongly about it, but he knew that rejecting the swearing would bring about a change in policy. If the Air Force did not revise the policy then it would likely end up in court as the airman had threatened to sue. I believe that the courts would almost certainly strike the requirement down. Most likely it would end there as any higher courts would deny hearing the case.

As a result it’s not surprising that after consulting with the Department of Defense’s general counsel that the Air Force quickly amended the requirement and processed the airman’s enlistment papers. Chances are they knew that it likely would not, and should not, hold up in court. While it may seem like a small deal, these little things are very important with regard to religious freedom and separation of church and state in the US.






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