The Air Force announced that it will no longer require airmen to include the phrase "so help me God" as a part of an enlistment or officer appointment oath.
Under the new policy, Air Force support offices will now allow airmen to omit "so help God" from the end of their enlistment of appointment oath if they prefer to do so. Previous Air Force regulations did not permit the support offices to process enlistment paperwork with any omissions. The policy change is effective immediately while the Army and Navy already allow their enlistees to omit the phrase.
"The Air Force will be updating the instructions for both enlisted and commissioned Airmen to reflect these changes in the coming weeks, but the policy change is effective now," the Wednesday Air Force press release said. "Airmen who choose to omit the words 'So help me God' from enlistment and officer appointment oaths may do so."
The policy change comes in response to a lawsuit threatened by an atheist airman from Nevada's Creech Air Force Base after he was denied reenlistment because he scratched the phrase from his enlistment papers and did not say the phrase upon reciting the the enlistment oath.
Initially, the Air Force told the airman, who has been in the Air Force since 2003, he would have to leave the Air Force if he did not say the required phrase before his contract ended this November.
Although the airman had completed the enlistment form and recited the rest of the oath except for the four words at the end, "so help me God," the airman's unit was unable to process his reenlistment because Air Force Instruction 36-2606 previously forbade processing paperwork with any omissions. The airman was told on Aug. 25 that his reenlistment could not be accepted.
The American Humanist Organization offered to represent the airman in his lawsuit. Monica Miller, an attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center of the American Humanist Association, sent a letter to to the inspector general at Creech Air Force Base dated Sept. 2. The letter stated that if the airman was not allowed to reenlist with a secular oath by Sept. 19, her organization was going to move forward with legal action.
Although the Air Force previously held that it could not make changes to the Air Force Instruction without approval from Congress, the Air Force consulted the Department of Defense General Counsel and the decision was made to make the phrase optional.
"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."
Miller told USA Today that requiring a "religious test" as a condition to join the Air Force or hold any public trust violates Article VI of the U.S. Constitution.
"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," Miller said.