Constitution Day Victory for Separation of Church & State
In a symbolically appropriate victory for the First Amendment and separation of church and state on Constitution Day, the United States Air Force announced today that the phrase “so help me God” will henceforth be optional in USAF enlistment oaths.
Earlier this month, an airman at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada, was refused the right to re-enlist because he would not say “so help me God” as demanded by a superior officer. The American Humanist Association immediately wrote the Air Force Inspector General that it was prepared to file federal suit on behalf of the airman for the service’s violation of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Predictably, the Air Force responded by digging its hole deeper. Christopher Hoyler, an Air Force Public Affairs Officer, told the Washington Post that the airman in question had in fact not been denied the right to re-enlist; all he had to do, Hoyler added, was say “so help me God” before his enlistment expired in November. The root of the problem was a little-noticed 2013 change in Air Force policy that made reciting “so help me God” a statutory obligation for enlistment.
[su_center_ad]As the Washington Post notes, this is the latest in a series of Air Force scandals involving what the blogger Andrew Sullivan calls “Christianism,” or politicized Christianity. In 2011, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation successfully lobbied for changes to the service’s nuclear missile officer training program after TruthOut.org leaked educational materials from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California that regularly invoked New Testament doctrine in an “ethics” training program led not by line officers but by Christian chaplains. One former missile officer said he and his colleagues referred to it as the “Jesus Loves Nukes” class.
In 2012, the Air Force Times reported on the service’s “balance” problem where Christian religion is concerned. The Times quoted a Lieutenant Colonel as saying,
I’ve been in Wing staff meetings where prayers were said before we started. The Wing Commander would say, ‘If this offends anyone, please speak up.’ Are you kidding me? Who would speak up and immediately ruin their career?
As a result, the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz, was forced to dispatch a memorandum entitled “Maintaining Government Neutrality Regarding Religion” to all Air Force commands.
And just this past May, the service came under fire for reports that senior Air Force officers were using their positions to proselytize Christianity to subordinates. Rather predictably, Congressional Republicans flew to the service’s defense, claiming that regulations barring proselytizing by superior officers “silenced” their right to religious beliefs. That case grew out of an Air Force Academy scandal in which Academy faculty encouraged cadets to “cite their Christian faith as an important aspect of their lives.” The Academy’s Commanding General, Brigadier General Andy Armacost, had to address the entire faculty and specifically order them not to proselytize.
For now, those who wish to join or stay in the service appear to be free to do so without invoking supernatural assistance. Sort of lends a whole new meaning to the old phrase, “on a wing and a prayer.”[su_csky_ad]