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In October 2013, the United States Air Force Academy announced that the words “so help me, God” would be optional when cadets recite the Honor Oath. In response, several GOP Congressmen proposed legislation that would force all Academy cadets to add those words back. The Wild Hunt spoke with a Pagan military veteran as well as Air Force Academy (AFA) Public Affairs officials about the proposed legislation and why they believe keeping “so help me, God” optional is important.

We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does. Furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and to live honorably, so help me God. – USAF Academy Cadet Honor Oath

Background on the Honor Oath
The first portion of what would later become the Honor oath, “We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does …” was created by the Air Force Academy’s first class to graduate in 1959.

In 1984, the Academy was rocked by allegations of a cheating scandal. As a result of the investigation, an Honor Committee was created. The committee’s recommendation was to turn the code into an oath, which all cadets would take. They also added “and furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and live honorably” and tagged “so help me, God” to give the oath more gravity. That same year, the cadets voted to approve the Honor Oath and have all freshman cadets swear the oath when they are accepted into the cadet wing.

In 2013, the Academy decided to make, “so help me, God,” optional.

Photo By Dennis Rogers (US Air Force Public Affairs)

Photo By Dennis Rogers (US Air Force Public Affairs)

Legislation Proposed
Reps. Sam Johnson (R-TX), Pete Olson (R-TX), Pete Sessions (R-TX), and Doug Lamborn (R-CO) have sponsored a bill that aims to force all branches of the military to seek congressional approval before they make any changes to any oath. Effectively, it seeks to force an Air Force Academy cadet to say, “so help me, God” when they recite the Honor Oath.

Johnson said that the bill, which is called the Preserve and Protect God in Military Oaths Act, is necessary to protect the freedom of religion of U.S. troops. First introduced in 2013, the bill has been reintroduced this year with the addition of Rep. Lamborn as a co-sponsor.

When The Wild Hunt reached out to the AFA Public Affairs office they said they still stand behind the statement AFA Superintendent  Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson made in 2013 when the AFA made “so help me, God” optional. They also provided background information on how the Honor Oath was created and why they made a portion of it optional.

In the statement, Lt. Gen. Johnson said, “Here at the Academy, we work to build a culture of dignity and respect, and that respect includes the ability of our cadets, Airmen and civilian Airmen to freely practice and exercise their religious preference – or not. So, in the spirit of respect, cadets may or may not choose to finish the Honor Oath with ‘So help me God.’”

Air Force Academy’s Changing Religious Culture
In 2007 the AFA made news in a string of articles showcasing the institution as the focal point for an evangelical Christian takeover of the military.  When PNC-Minnesota looked into the changing culture of the AFA in 2011, this climate of Evangelicalism appears to have come about due to an over-correction to the sexual assault cases that shocked the campus a few years earlier.

Lt Col Dan Brantingham, AFA Cadet Wing Chaplain, explained, “In the aftermath of the sexual assault cases in 2004-5, some leaders looked to religion to assist cadets in living honorable lives. In doing so, the leaders unintentionally promoted a particular flavor of religion as the solution.”

Starting in 2007, the Academy took steps to renew its focus on freedom of religion. Brantingham says he supports the current Academy policy of religious neutrality, “As an Air Force Chaplain my responsibility is to ensure the free exercise of religion for all cadets to include the minority faith group cadets. When I protect and advocate the freedom of religious conscience for all cadets, I fulfill my oath and because of the brilliance of the First Amendment, I safe-guard my own freedom of religion as well.”

In 2008 and again in 2010, the Academy hosted the Conference on Religious Respect. Out of the 2008 conference the Cadet Interfaith Council was formed, the Religious Respect Training program was launched, and support was increased for the Spiritual Programs in Religious Education (SPIRE). The third initiative to come out of the 2008 conference is what the Academy calls its “cornerstone religious diversity program,” the Religious Respect Training program for cadets, faculty and staff. The program is unique to the Air Force Academy. It includes in-depth training on the First Amendment, and the Establishment, Free Exercise, and Free Speech clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

The 2010 Conference on Religious Respect continued to examine and refine those initiatives. Sixteen national religious leaders were invited as panelists including Rev. David Oringderff, PhD, head of Sacred Well Congregation and sponsoring organization for the Earth-Centered Spirituality group at the Academy.

In a message to the San Antonio Military Open Circle’s Yahoo group, Rev. Oringderff said he was impressed by the emphasis on ways to promote respect, not merely religious tolerance. He quoted Chaplain Brantingham’s remarks during the opening of the conference, “I don’t want to be tolerated; I want to be respected—and everyone else is entitled to that same right.”

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Falcon Circle dedication ceremony, 2011 [Photo credit: USAFA]

The most visible result of the renewed commitment to free exercise of religion is the creation of Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle. Falcon Circle, which sits on a hill, came into existence through the efforts of a former cadet wing chaplain, Chap. William Ziegler and former Earth-Centered Spirituality Distinctive Faith Group Leader (DFGL), Tech Sgt. Brandon Longcrier. While Falcon Circle is open to any cadet, Pagan cadets in the Earth-Based Spirituality Distinctive Faith Group have priority in its use. They meditate and celebrate Sabbats at the stone circle.

Air Force Veteran Reacts
Don Branum is an Air Force veteran and Pagan of 19 years who lives in Lamborn’s district. He also works as a staff writer for the Academy Spirit, the weekly newspaper for the United States Air Force Academy.*

When asked how he felt about the proposed bill, H.R. 1425, he said, “I take great exception to Congressman Johnson’s ‘So help me God’ bill, both as a Pagan and a veteran. I’m even more disappointed to learn that Rep. Doug Lamborn, who represents a religiously diverse district, has chosen to co-sponsor it. Requiring any man or woman to swear ‘so help me God’ as part of an oath of office or oath of enlistment clearly violates both the religious test clause of the Constitution (Article VI, Paragraph 3) and the First Amendment, which states, in part, ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …’

“I’m happy to share the public square with people from all walks of life and all beliefs, because I believe our nation draws its strength from the diversity of its people. But I will not stand quietly while someone attempts to impose his religion on the rest of the nation.” Branum went on to say that if the bill’s co-sponsors value the oaths they took to support and defend the Constitution, they should either immediately withdraw their support for H.R. 1425 or resign from office.

 

*Don Branum’s views reflect his personal opinion only and do not in any way represent the official position of the Air Force Academy, the Air Force or the Department of Defense.