Airmen taking their enlistment or officer appointment oaths can omit the words "so help me God" if they choose, Air Force officials announced Wednesday.
The policy change comes after an atheist airman at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada struck out the words on his Department of Defense reenlistment paperwork and ran afoul of a policy that prohibits omissions. The case went up to the Department of Defense General Counsel, which issued an opinion saying the language could be left out if the airman preferred. All of the other military services have allowed the alternate language for years.
"We take any instance in which airmen report concerns regarding religious freedom seriously," Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said in a statement. "We are making the appropriate adjustments to ensure our airmen's rights are protected."
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The case involved a technical sergeant who initially enlisted in 2003, before he was an atheist, according to attorney Monica Miller of the American Humanist Association. But his views changed, and he crossed out the words "so help me God" when he filled out reenlistment paperwork recently.
"It was important from the standpoint of honesty," Miller said of her client, who she said wants to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. "He can't take an oath for a God he doesn't believe in."
Military officials said the airman's unit was unable to process the documents because of the policy against omissions. Miller said he was told by his commanders Aug. 25 that he must swear to God or leave the service.
The humanist group sent letters to the Air Force threatening to sue if the airman couldn't re-enlist without saying "so help me God" by Sept. 19.
He was informed of the policy change Wednesday, Miller said, and is "feeling that his rights have really been vindicated."
The decision was applauded by Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nevada, whose congressional district includes Creech Air Force Base.
"We celebrate the diverse beliefs and views that members of the Air Force hold," he said in a statement. "Our freedoms are only truly valuable when we respect them in practice."