The U.S. Air Force appears to be systematically removing the phrase “so help me God” from the oaths of office taken by officer candidates and enlistees.
According to Judicial Watch, a legal watchdog organization, the United States Air Force Academy has removed the phrase from some written materials, including the oath administered to new cadets, because of a single atheist’s objections.
Judicial Watch submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in May 2013 asking the Pentagon to provide records of all documents, policies, and communications related to the removal of the phrase from Air Force Academy materials. As of September, the group has not received an official response from the Air Force and has filed a FOIA lawsuit to obtain records that could shed light on how and why officials made the change.
In August 2013, Air Force Officer Trainee Jonathan Bise sought help from the Appignani Humanist Legal Center to avoid having to recite the phrase during his graduation ceremony at Alabama’s Maxwell Air Force Base.
In a letter to Air Force officials at Maxwell, the legal center alleged that the language of the oath violated Bise’s constitutional rights. In response to the threat of litigation, Air Force officials agreed to remove the phrase from the oath for Bise and others.
“Our previous legal advisors were mistaken in advising us that it was required,” Maj. Stewart L. Rountree wrote in a letter that addressed the planned revision. “Our current legal advisors made me aware and we will ensure it reaches all corners of our program.”
However, the phrase “so help me God” is in fact mandatory and required by law in all oaths of office taken by military officers and enlisted personnel, as well as federal employees and federal judges and justices. The only federal official not required by law to use this phrase is the president. The language of the presidential oath is taken directly from the U.S. Constitution, which does not include the phrase.
The Air Force Academy “pledge of loyalty” oath, included as part of its admissions materials, reads as follows:
“I, (name), having been appointed an Air Force cadet in the United States Air Force, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”