DOD Sued for Records About Removal of 'So Help Me God' from Air Force Academy Written Materials

There has been a wave of attacks against religious freedom inside the United States Military.

There was the Air Force officer who was forced to remove a Bible from his desk because it might offend someone. There is the military chaplain who was instructed to resign his commission if he refused to “get on board” with the abolition of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. There’s the 20-year-old ethics course that was eliminated in July 2011 because it referenced scripture.  And there is the painting containing a verse from scripture that was removed from the Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho following a complaint by an anti-Christian “religious freedom” group.

Recently, the United States Air Force (USAF) Academy removed the words “So help me God” from some written materials, including the oath administered to USAF inductees, based upon the objections of a single atheist, we allege.

Judicial Watch initiated an investigation into this troubling decision. And on September 12, 2013, we filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense to get our hands on records that could shed light on how and why this move was made.

JW seeks the following records as described in our May 6, 2013, FOIA request with the Pentagon:

  • Records of the decision to delete, remove, and/or discontinue use of the phrase “… so help me God” from the USAF Academy written materials, including but not limited to the cadet handbook, and any other oaths of allegiance and/or office;
  • Records of policy memos, directives or other materials and/or communications implementing the decision described in Point 1, supra.
  • Records used for the factual foundation for the decision described in Point 1, supra;
  • Records of all communications with Third Parties concerning use of the phrase “… so help me God” at the USAF Academy.

Now, let us take a look at The USAF Academy “pledge of loyalty” oath, included as part of the Academy admissions material. It reads:

I, (name), having been appointed an Air Force cadet in the United States Air Force, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

While this oath has undergone modifications over the centuries, the phrase “So help me God” dates all the way back to 1776. So there can be no question regarding whether or not our Founding Fathers believed there was any conflict among the reference to “God” and our founding principles and the Constitution.

On the USAF Academy website, cadets are told, “Shortly after arrival, you’ll participate in one of the more solemn occasions of your cadet career: taking the oath that makes you a member of the Armed Forces of the United States. Consider what this country means to you and what defending it involves. You must serve wholeheartedly. If you have any reservations, resolve them before committing to an appointment to USAFA and before taking this oath.”

One Air Force Officer Trainee, Jonathan Bise, in August 2013 procured the assistance of the American Humanist Association Appignani Humanist Legal Center to help him avoid using the religious phrase “So help me God” during his graduation ceremony at Alabama’s Maxwell Air Force Base.

In a letter to Air Force officials at Maxwell, the legal center alleged that the language of the oath was a violation of Bise’s constitutional rights and warned that “all those involved in violating his constitutional rights are subject to a lawsuit in federal court.” In response to the threat of litigation, USAF officials removed “so help me God” from the oath for Bise.

But lest anyone believe this is only an isolated exception for Mr. Bise, the Air Force put those thoughts to rest, per the Huffington Post:

Air Force Trainee Jonathan Bise and others will be offered a chance to recite and sign a secular oath as part of their graduation ceremony on Tuesday, after officials noted that they had erred in including the phrase, "So help me God" as mandatory in both written and verbal versions. [Emphasis added.] 

"Our previous legal advisors were mistaken in advising us that it was required," Maj. Stewart L. Rountree wrote in a letter, addressing the planned revision. "Our current legal advisors made me aware and we will ensure it reaches all corners of our program."

Unilaterally removing “so help me God” from Air Force Academy materials is at odds with our nation’s history, the rule of law, and the fundamental values of the American people. We want to get to the bottom of this controversy, and it is a shame we had to go to court to try to get past the Pentagon’s stonewall.


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