Air Force Drops 'So Help Me God' Requirement in Enlistment Oaths

Air Force members once again have the option of omitting the phrase "so help me God" from their enlistment and appointment oaths. The service joins the other three military branches in making the phrase optional for its service members, a practice it had followed until last year when a legal review determined there could be no omissions of the phrase.

The Pentagon said today its General Counsel had determined that the Air Force cannot compel its airmen to include the phrase in its oaths. The Air Force says it will institute the change immediately, returning to a practice it had changed last year.

The issue had arisen in August when an unidentified airman at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada was denied re-enlistment after he refused to take a re-enlistment oath that ends with the phrase "so help me God." The airman, who is an atheist, was told by superiors that, according to Air Force regulations, he must include the phrase so his re-enlistment could be processed.

The other three military services do not require their troops to say the phrase when reciting the oath. Until last October, the Air Force also followed the same practice but that policy changed after a legal review by the Air Force General Counsel determined that the federal statutes required the phrase as part of re-enlistment and commissioning oaths.

In light of the issues raised by the airman's re-enlistment at Creech, the Air Force sought a legal opinion two weeks ago from the Department of Defense's General Counsel.

That office has determined that the Air Force should give its airmen the opportunity to omit the phrase, a Pentagon spokesman said.

"The General Counsel concluded that an individual may exclude the words, 'So help me God,' and that the Department may not compel the individual to include those words as a condition of enlistment or officer appointment," Lt. Cmd. Nate Christensen said.

"We take any instance in which Airmen report concerns regarding religious freedom seriously," Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said in an Air Force News Service article. "We are making the appropriate adjustments to ensure our Airmen's rights are protected."

The policy change will be effective immediately and administrative instructions will be updated accordingly in coming weeks.

"Airmen who choose to omit the words 'So help me God' from enlistment and officer appointment oaths may do so," the Air Force article said

And that includes the airman whose case prompted the legal review. "Now that the Department of Defense General Counsel has provided an opinion," the Air Force said, "the Airman's enlistment paperwork will be processed to completion."