This piece originally appeared in the Orlando Sentinel on October 5, 2014 and is reposted with the permission of the author.

By James Coffin

Atheists rightfully should not be kept from military service, a Christian clergyman writes.

An atheist airman at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada recently wasn't allowed to re-enlist because he refused to sign an oath containing the phrase "so help me God."

Initially, Air Force personnel reported that enlistees used to be allowed to opt out of the oath's appeal to deity, but the provision had been withdrawn on Oct. 30, 2013. The Air Force claimed that only Congress could reinstate it.

However, when the American Humanist Association and the media became involved, the Air Force sought legal counsel and reverted to the former practice. But that didn't please some Christians.

As a U.S citizen and a member of the Christian clergy, my advice to my fellow Christians is to consider two sets of principles: the law of the land and our Christian faith.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution seems clear: Government shouldn't be in the business of either promoting religion or preventing people from following their conscientious convictions. Article VI says: "[N]o religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust "

The third commandment says: "You shall not misuse [take in vain] the name of the Lord your God." I think that prohibits attaching God's name to anything that doesn't deserve to have God's name attached. In fact, misusing God's name is such a severe offense that "the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name."

From my perspective, if I seek to deprive atheists of their livelihood and the chance to serve their nation unless they call on God – when they don't believe God even exists – I would be aiding and abetting the misuse of God's name. What kind of God could possibly be honored by such coercion to make such a phony declaration? The Scriptures say, "The Lord detests lying lips."

There's also that teaching we call the golden rule: Treat others the way you'd want to be treated if the tables were turned. Would I as a Christian want government officials to threaten me with job loss unless I pay homage to a deity I don't believe in?

I'd suggest that between the mandates of the U.S. Constitution and the teachings of Christianity, there's more than a compelling reason to protect freedom of conscience.

Even for atheists.

James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.

 
 

15 Comments

  1. John C. says:

    I agree with the points you have made. How­ever, when the Amer­i­can Human­ist Asso­ci­a­tion and the media became involved, the Air Force sought legal coun­sel and reverted to the for­mer prac­tice. But that didnt please some Christians.

  2. Sally Natividad says:

    I applaud James Coffin's arguments due to their effective persuasiveness. One never really takes into consideration how the minority, the atheists in this case, will react to a certain situation. Taking an oath under God is a serious matter. As a Catholic, I cannot relate in many ways to atheists. Consequently, I do not fully understand why taking an Oath under God is in a way offensive to them. However, I do profoundly agree that no one "shall… mis­use the name of the Lord your God", so being forced to say an oath under His name without believing in Him is a failure to fulfill God's Commandments and should therefore not be a requirement for these citizens seeking to join the Air Force. What I do not understand is why the provision in which "enlistees used to be allowed to opt out of the oaths appeal to deity" was withdrawn. It seems more reasonable to include this option to opt out due to our First Amendment establishing freedom of religion, along with other freedoms. The Government should definitely not intertwine with an individual's religion, or lack of religion.

    • Dyrus says:

      I applaud James Coffins argu­ments due to their effec­tive per­sua­sive­ness. One never really takes into con­sid­er­a­tion how the minor­ity, the athe­ists in this case, will react to a cer­tain sit­u­a­tion. Tak­ing an oath under God is a seri­ous mat­ter. As a Catholic, I can­not relate in many ways to athe­ists. Con­se­quently, I do not fully under­stand why tak­ing an Oath under God is in a way offen­sive to them. How­ever, I do pro­foundly agree that no one shall mis­use the name of the Lord your God, so being forced to say an oath under His name with­out believ­ing in Him is a fail­ure to ful­fill Gods Com­mand­ments and should there­fore not be a require­ment for these cit­i­zens seek­ing to join the Air Force.

    • Pedro Fabian says:

      I also don't understand the reasoning behind repealing the ability to opt out of the oath's appeal to a deity. What I understand even less is why this must even be considered by anyone who is not an atheist, this oath is not an actual religious appeal and is in actuality simply tradition. To argue that an atheist should not pledge to a deity he or she does not believe in because it breaks a religious commandment and offends those who are religious is not only restricting one's first amendment right to freedom of speech but also shifting the focus from the rights of the minority to accommodate the feelings of the majority, when in this case specifically, the majority is neither effected nor important. I understand that James Cof­fin's argument is supporting my own views, as you should not have to appeal to a god one does not believe in, but his reasoning behind it offends me as an atheist because he's making it about his religion when it should be about the atheist airman's lack of one and ability to lack one. His argument that a religious person allowing this TRADITION to proceed is actually that person "aid­ing and abet­ting the mis­use of Gods name" is permitting any religious person to impose their religious beliefs on atheists as to accommodate their religious conscience. Changing the air force's enlistment system because it violates an atheist's right to religious freedom is just, but, ironically, changing the air force's enlistment system because it offends those who are religious that atheists are pledging to their god is a clear violation of the separation of church and state and the first amendment right of freedom of speech!

  3. Poppin's Mom says:

    I believe to deprive athe­ists of their liveli­hood and the chance to serve their nation unless they call on God. As a Catholic, I can­not relate in many ways to athe­ists. Con­se­quently, I do not fully under­stand why tak­ing an Oath under God is in a way offen­sive to them. How­ever, I do pro­foundly agree that no one shall mis­use the name of the Lord your God, so being forced to say an oath under His name with­out believ­ing in Him is a fail­ure to ful­fill Gods Com­mand­ments and should there­fore not be a require­ment for these cit­i­zens seek­ing to join the Air Force.

  4. Ben D. Ovare says:

    I can­not relate in many ways to athe­ists. Con­se­quently, I do not fully under­stand why tak­ing an Oath under God is in a way offen­sive to them. How­ever, I do pro­foundly agree that no one shall mis­use the name of the Lord your God, so being forced to say an oath under His name with­out believ­ing in Him is a (click on the names for Lol) fail­ure to ful­fill Gods Com­mand­ments and should there­fore not be a require­ment for these cit­i­zens seek­ing to join the Air Force. What I do not under­stand is why the pro­vi­sion in which enlis­tees used to be allowed to opt out of the oaths appeal to deity was with­drawn.

  5. Mike Hawk says:

    As a atheist I strongly disagree with this news, i believe that our religion should not be affecting the way we live our life. People settle in america to have freedom in what they believe in.

  6. eva moya says:

    I agree with James Coffins opinion, religion should not be mixed with government I understand its mostly done for traditions, but we need to take into consideration of the separation between church and state. According to the free exercise clause government cannot get involved in religion or freedom; atheist should have the right to opt from taking the oath to join the Air force because it goes against freedom to decide to be involved in a religion. I cannot relate to atheist, but I agree that government should no impose religious values on Americans. I also agree with Sally, I dont understand why the ability to opt the oath was withdrawn because it appears to violate the first amendment. Even though we may not all share the same values or religion we should respect each others rights that are issued in the Bill of Rights. Prayer should not be made mandatory because government should take into consideration that American have a right to choose a religion or not; forcing them to take an oath under something they dont believe in does not change anything.

  7. Kevin Palacios: Codename:TERMINATOR says:

    James coffin did a marvelous job expressing his opinion and i agree with him. I am a christian and even i can relate to the atheist airman, if the government forced me to do something that would go against my belief like lets say made me swear an oath to Allah or the Buddha it would violate my first amendment and would go against the free exercise clause. So why is it that it is considered acceptable that an atheist to be forced to say the words "so help me God" when it would go against his own personal beliefs. I understand that some Christians may not be pleased that future airmen can opt out the oaths appeal to deity, but that itself is understandable the real issue is why did the pro­vi­sion get withdrawn in the first place since it would clearly go against a person individual rights?

  8. Abraham Vargas says:

    If a person does not believe in God, they can still be a loyal citizen of a republic that does. Tying this to the pledge of allegiance as Sam Brownback said "There is nothing more American than the Pledge of Allegiance and an acknowledgement of God is at the heart of our founding principles and is our nation's motto." Its about the tradition more than anything.

    • Mario Felix says:

      Exactly. While I'm not religious myself, I'm not one of those scrubs that avoids "under God." To me it is out of respect to our founding father's beliefs. For example, someone named Genesis wouldn't change her name because solely because she's not Christian.
      This seems more Anti-Christian than atheist.

  9. Brandon says:

    Cool. The Air Force creates a situation that breaks the first amendment of the Constitution via an oath to defend the Constitution

    That Catch-22 is some catch, eh?.

    • Mario Felix says:

      Dude. Joseph Heller predicted a Catch-22 in the Air Force 53 years ago, in his book Catch-22. Heller is obviously the devil in disguise and also involved with the Freemasons.

  10. Gabriel Garcia says:

    I agree with your point of view discussed in the article.
    Likewise, agreeing with previous commenters, people should not be forced to take an oath under God's name or other religious beliefs in which they did not follow. It completely goes against personal freedom and our own lifestyles.
    In a situation where I would be forced to take such an oath to a religious figure of whom I did not worship, I too would feel uncomfortable and most likely not do it.
    Religion is of pure choice and right, not to be issued to citizens.

  11. Blanca Lissette Rivas says:

    It is uncomfortable to imagine a country in which a citizen would not have the opportunity to voice out his or her opinion about matters such as these, and unfortunately so, those countries do exist. We must respect the sublimity of our government, because it is written that no form of government shall dictate our system of beliefs in any way, shape or form. In this case, it is clear why this clause was established. The atheist airman was denied the opportunity for a government position because he refused to acknowledge the existence of a god. Why, in any right of mind, would anyone volunteer to participate in affairs that a government, who has acknowledged the existence of a god, if that person doesn't even believe in God in the first place? Yes, our federal government is designed for its citizens to hold as much opportunity for involvement as possible, but mustn't we also put our part and compromise with the liberties given to us? Isn't this the price we pay for wanting to live in a "civilization" with rules and rationales?

 
 
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