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Atheist airman can re-enlist without religious oath after policy change

Air Force decided an individual may omit ‘so help me God’ from oath

An atheist U.S. airman who had been barred from re-enlisting over his refusal to utter a religious oath will now be able to serve again after the Air Force reversed course and said individuals may omit “so help me God” from their pledges if they wish.

The Air Force announced Wednesday afternoon that in response to concerns raised by service members, it asked for an opinion from the Department of Defense’s general counsel as to the legality of its oath of service, which includes the words “so help me God” and previously had to be made without omitting them.

As a result of that request, the Air Force decided that “an individual may strike or omit the words ‘so help me God’ from an enlistment or appointment oath if preferred,” it said in a statement.

“We take any instance in which airmen report concerns regarding religious freedom seriously,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said. “We are making the appropriate adjustments to ensure our airmen’s rights are protected.”

The change of policy means that the unidentified airman at the heart of the challenge will be able to continue his service.

Based at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada, the airman was allegedly told prior to the ruling that his only options were to say the oath in its entirely or leave the Air Force.

“Our client was notified earlier this afternoon that he would be able to re-enlist without saying ‘so help me God,’” American Humanist Association (AHA) lawyer Monica Miller told Al Jazeera. 

Earlier this month, the AHA, which describes itself as “advocating values and equality for humanists, atheists and freethinkers,” characterized the airman’s situation as a civil rights violation and demanded the Air Force correct the matter.

The option to include or omit “so help me God” as part of the oath of office was previously given to airmen. But the option was done away with on Oct. 30, 2013, though Air Force officials have thus far been unable to elaborate on why that occurred. 

The Air Force, meanwhile, said that it will be updating its instructions to airmen to reflect the new guidance in the coming weeks but said that it was effective immediately. 

“We are very pleased that the Department of Defense has confirmed that our client has a First Amendment right to omit the religious reference in his re-enlistment oath,” Miller said.

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