Sep 09, 2014

The United States Air Force cannot prohibit an atheist from reenlisting simply because he refused to say the part of the enlistment oath that includes the words “so help me God,” Americans United for Separation of Church and State says.

In a letter sent today to the Pentagon, Americans United writes that denying an airman the opportunity to reenlist over his refusal to take a religious oath violates the U.S. Constitution in two ways: It goes against the First Amendment, which prohibits government establishment of religion and restrictions on the free exercise of religion, and violates Article VI, which bars religious tests. 

“The Constitution does not establish religious belief as a requirement for serving in the U.S. military,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “But the Air Force apparently decided that if you don’t believe in God, you can’t serve your country.”

Americans United’s letter was written in support of an airman who attempted to reenlist at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nev. The letter notes that the Air Force claims that saying “so help me God” when taking the enlistment oath is required by statute, and the Air Force lacks the authority to accommodate an atheist unless given permission by Congress.

But Americans United says that defense is legally flawed.

“Lest there be any confusion, the U.S. Constitution trumps conflicting requirements from federal statutes: ‘a law repugnant to the constitution is void,’ and ‘courts, as well as other departments, are bound by that instrument,’” AU’s letter states, quoting the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Says Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper: “The Air Force is sending the message that ‘atheists need not enlist.’ The Constitution says otherwise. Our armed forces are better because of the religious diversity of our troops, and we urge the Air Force to comply with its obligations to welcome all qualified individuals, whether or not they believe in God.”

The letter was written by Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, Lipper and AU Staff Attorney Ian Smith.