US Air Force says 'So help me God' phrase in oaths to be optional

(Photo: REUTERS / Hugh Gentry)U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta swears in U.S. Air Force Airman SRA Seth Harrier (R) and U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Jason Lasley as they re-enlist on board the USS Arizona Memorial in Honolulu, Hawaii March 9, 2012.

The U.S. Air Force has decided to make the words "So help me God" optional in oaths after an atheist airman crossed out the phrase from his reenlistment papers in Nevada.

The decision came after the Air Force was pressured by the American Humanist Association that threatened to sue them, the Los Angeles Times reported on September 18.

Monica Miller, an attorney with the AHA's Apignani Humanist Legal Center, said on September 2 that the airman should be allowed to reenlist "without having to swear to a deity, and instead given a secular oath."

Miller noted that there are other cases in which atheists were given the privilege of removing theistic language from enlistment or reenlistment contracts, The Airforce Times reported.

In August, the atheist airman crossed out the phrase in his reenlistment papers when he tried to reenlist at Creech Air Force Base in the state of Nevada.

He also did not include the "so help me God" phrase in his oath which made the officials of his unit deny his reenlistment.

The airman was told his only options were to sign the religious oath section of the contract without adjustment and recite an oath concluding with "so help me God," or leave the Air Force, the AHA said.

In response to concerns raised by different groups, the Air Force requested an opinion from the Department of Defense General Counsel addressing the legal parameters of the oath.

The conclusion was that an individual may strike or omit the words "So help me God" from an enlistment or appointment oath if preferred.

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James in a statement on September 17 said appropriate adjustments are being made to ensure that airmen's rights are protected.

"We take any instance in which airmen report concerns regarding religious freedom seriously," she said.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an Albuquerque, New Mexico-based group, had protested the policy of forcing an oath to God as unconstitutional. It called the change in Air Force policy a "resounding victory."

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