The Air Force Academy Preparatory School took down this poster of the honor oath after a complaint about the words 'so help me God'' in the oath. (Air Force Academy)
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The Air Force Academy on Friday announced that it will now be optional for cadets to recite “so help me God” at the end of its honor oath.
The academy made the change in response to a complaint from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which advocates for the separation of church and state in the military.
“Here at the academy, we work to build a culture of dignity and respect, and that respect includes the ability of our cadets, airmen and civilian airmen to freely practice and exercise their religious preference — or not,” academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson said. “So, in the spirit of respect, cadets may or may not choose to finish the honor oath with ‘so help me God.’ ”
But MRFF President Mikey Weinstein said the academy’s decision isn’t enough.
“The Air Force Academy took the cowardly route,” Weinstein said after the announcement. “From our perspective, it still creates a tremendous amount of unconstitutional turmoil ... for anyone who is a religious objector.”
Weinstein pledged earlier in the week to bring a lawsuit against the academy if the religious language is not dropped entirely from the oath.
The academy’s honor oath reads: “We will not lie, steal or cheat nor tolerate among us anyone who does. Furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and live honorably, so help me God.”
Weinstein said in an interview that the oath’s final four words are an illegal violation of Article VI of the Constitution, which states that “no religous test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.
“You cannot have anyone swear an oath to a supreme being to take a position in the federal government,” Weinstein said. “What we’re talking about is civil rights.”
Among the options the committee discussed were making no change to the oath, making the “so help me God” portion optional, or striking the entire oath.
But Weinstein said nothing short of eliminating the “so help me God” language from the oath is acceptable. Making it optional would not be good enough, he said, because airmen who chose not to say it would feel pressure.
“It exacts an unconstitutional toll on religious objectors,” Weinstein said. “Everyone knows you’re not playing for the right team.”
But if the language is struck from the oath, he said he would not object to cadets choosing to say it on their own.
“I’m completely and totally fine with them adding it if they choose,” Weinstein said. “They can swear so help me God, so help me Allah, so help me Spider-Man. But when you have it there, that is a noxious violation of separation of church and state.”
The Colorado Springs Independent on Oct. 21 posted a picture of a poster at the academy, which had the oath, including the concluding “so help me God” phrase.
It had earlier received the photo, along with several others, from the academy when it asked for pictures of the academy preparatory school. The Independent said it forwarded the photo to Weinstein, who complained to the academy’s vice superintendent on Oct. 18 about it.
Weinstein said Johnson soon wrote back to him and said the honor oath has had this wording since about 1984, and that the poster with the oath has been taken down. Vidal confirmed the content of Johnson’s email.
The MRFF has been a vocal critic of the academy over nearly the last decade for allowing evangelical Christian airmen to proselytize their faith to cadets.
The academy is trying to address that, and recently created a religious respect program.
For example, under this program, first-year cadets are taught strategies for handling someone who is attempting to exert unwanted religious influence, and seniors who are about to be commissioned as officers are taught how to promote religious respect as commanders.
Weinstein graduated from the academy in 1977, and spent 10 years in the Air Force as a judge advocate general, and more than three years as legal counsel for the Reagan administration. His two sons, son-in-law, and daughter-in-law also graduated from the academy. Weinstein, who is Jewish, said his younger son experienced anti-Semitic prejudice while attending the academy in 2004, after the movie “The Passion of the Christ” was released. He said cadets were being pressured to see the movie. He founded MRFF later that year.
The phrase “so help me God” appears in several oaths sworn by military service members and federal government employees, such as Navy midshipmen, newly commissioned Army officers, civilian federal employees, justices and judges, senators and congressmen, and presidents.■