An unnamed airman in the United States Air Force wants to continue to serve his country. Yet, the Air Force reportedly told him that his service is unwanted unless he swears an oath that concludes with the religious affirmation “so help me God.” According to the Air Force Times, the airman crossed out the words “so help me God” when he signed his reenlistment contract. He was subsequently told that he must either swear this religious oath or leave the service.
In justifying this decision, an Air Force spokesperson pointed to a federal law, which requires “[e]ach person enlisting in an armed force” to take an oath that concludes with the four words this airman finds objectionable. He did agree to the other portions of the oath, which includes a promise to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and to “obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me.”
Although this Air Force spokesperson is correct that Congress did pass a law stating that members of the armed forces should swear an oath that includes the words “So help me God,” the Constitution trumps an act of Congress, and requiring servicemembers to comply with this portion of the law is almost certainly unconstitutional. In the 1961 case Torcaso v. Watkins, the Supreme Court held that “neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person ‘to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.’”
Admittedly, the courts often show greater deference to the government in military matters, but the Supreme Court has also indicated that this deference does not permit servicemembers to be forced to swear a religious oath. “The test oath is abhorrent to our tradition,” the Court stated in its 1946 decision Girouard v. United States. “Over the years, Congress has meticulously respected that tradition and even in time of war has sought to accommodate the military requirements to the religious scruples of the individual.”