Secular groups take aim at mandatory military religion
Troops reenlisting in Afghanistan. How many should be sent home for failing a religious test for public office?
Atheists are in foxholes and always have been. Yet the Air Force has recently dug in to try to oust those who don’t fit new religious (read: Christian) requirements. In early August, a MAAF member, an Air Force NCO, reported that he was being denied the opportunity to re-enlist in the Air Force unless he agreed to say “So Help me God”, thus requiring submission to a divine being in contradiction to the Constitution and his own personal beliefs. MAAF has received this complaint many times, and the resolution normally requires not much more than a phone call to the local command to remind them of the Constitution. (MAAF has an FAQ written that has helped many with such issues.) Now for some reason, the Air Force has implemented a new God-only oath policy. Presumably someone in the Department of Defense will come to their senses and offer the same secular affirmation that has been available in the Air Force and elsewhere before, but as of now, it looks like certain officials plan to fight for a Christian nation.
Bryan Fischer of the fundamentalist Christian American Family Association (AFA) praises the new Air Force policy and says no atheist should serve in the military because, in his world, the United States is by-Christians, for-Christians and others are second-class citizens at best. He ignores legal precedent, the 1st Amendment protections of freedom of religion and government neutrality toward religion, and the specific Article VI Constitutional prohibition against a religious test for public office. (Update: AFA General Counsel Patrick Vaughn contradicts Fischer’s opinion, showing clear legal precedent (and Biblical precedent) for secular affirmation.)
This issue is so ridiculous that even atheists were skeptical that the problem was real. Common responses on social media included: “Absolutely not! That’s the reason there is an option to ‘affirm’, just as in the courts,” and “We were told when I first enlisted in the Air Force in 1989 that I didn’t have to say under god if I was uncomfortable with it. I was never told I couldn’t reenlist if I didn’t say under god.” Atheists, always skeptical, wanted evidence for what seemed both entirely ridiculous on its face and out of step with their own experience. As this story has been picked up by major media, secular organizations, and fundamentalist pundits, it has become clear to all that the advance of Christianization and anti-atheist sentiment is well-entrenched.
After the initial August report, MAAF reached out to the American Humanist Association Legal Center (AHLC) which drafted a legal challenge to the NCO’s command laying out the very clear Constitutional right to a secular affirmation and the very simple accommodations that would resolve the issue: offer a verbal secular affirmation and allow for line-out of the religious portion listed on the form. Our joint efforts were successful quickly with an Air Force officer last year, yet something has changed. In response to this issue, the Air Force not only denied the request but hid behind US Code Section 502 which has been in place for decades. Hopefully this is just an effort to make more clear the secular options available, yet we will now be made to fight to keep that right.
A Navy officer gives a secular affirmation in the Pentagon in August 2014. This is a simple accommodation of equal rights:
Always the fast follower on high-visibility issues, Mikey Weinstein has gathered a few of the tens of thousands of military personnel facing ouster from the military over this issue. In a letter to Secretary Hagel, MRFF warns of the expulsion of honorable and effective military members. On September 19th in front of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, Mikey will join representatives from the Center For Religious Liberty and Chaplain Alliance. The three will show clearly how evangelical Christianity is under attack in the military, one from the perspective of Constitutional governance and two from the perspective of proselytizing using government authority. MAAF has also submitted testimony to be read into the record at the hearing. This testimony highlights church-state violations but focuses primarily on the accommodation for humanists and chaplaincy reform that will allow for Christians, atheist, humanists, Hindus, and others to serve effectively alongside each other in a truly inclusive and diverse military.
Several groups have taken aim at the Christian evangelism so prevalent in the US military. Bibles at hotels and entrance processing are the latest targets. The Freedom From Religion Foundation and American Humanist Association have put their legal teams to work against military hotel Bibles and enlistment processing stations, respectively. Later, the Mikey jumped in on those issues in the press as well. They, like MAAF, have been involved for quite a while, but maybe with unified effort to remove evangelism from the military, there might be compliance with this round of reforms. There should never be the impression that only one group is fighting a lone fight to protect secular values in the military. It’s counterproductive to progress and disrespectful to the larger movement.
This oath issue comes on the heels of secular challenge to Bible distribution in hotels and enlistment processing stations. Several years ago, MAAF orchestrated the removal of an explicit requirement to stock Bibles at Air Force hotels. As reported by MAAF, this was an auxiliary effort of the more comprehensive and difficult community-building, leadership education, and generally positive outreach MAAF primarily focuses on. We have Chaplain Outreach, local groups, lay leaders, and even a pending chaplain candidate. Much of this is overlooked when some try to defend Bibles with claims of anti-social atheists, a Christian US or military, or that such items are simply harmless.
But the fact is, command preference for placing Bibles in prominent places just exacerbates many other cultural impositions of Christianity within the military. And in the military, a culture that reinforces social norms as a primary part of its mission, what would in normal circumstances be easy to overlook becomes a looming call to Church. And the new requirement to swear to God is so clearly a choice of fundamentalist Christianity over Constitutional values, we should all be on notice that Christian fundamentalism has taken long strides in subverting our government. It becomes more and more important to stand up for military troops, or if you’re in the military, stand up for your rights.