Sunday, September 14, 2014

174.4 - Outrage of the Week: Air Force bars atheist from enlisting

Outrage of the Week: Air Force bars atheist from enlisting

Now it's time for one of our regular weekly features, it's the Outrage of the Week.

The United States Air Force has apparently decided that the Constitution doesn't apply to it.

The case is that of an unnamed technical sergeant at Creech Air Force base in Nevada. His service time is coming to an end in November and last month he tried to re-enlist. But he was refused. The Air Force wouldn't take him. They told him he's got to go.

Why? Was he a troublemaker? Did he have a bad reputation? Was he insubordinate? A security risk? What?

None of the above. He's an atheist and since he enlisted, the Air Force has changed its rules about the oath you have to take to join (or re-join), which ends with "So help me god." Formerly, someone joining the Air Force could opt for a different phrase, but in October 2013 the Air Force said no, you have to say it, no option, no choice: You have to declare a belief in God or you can't be in the Air Force. The USAF is the only branch of the US military with the requirement.

If the Air Force doesn't budge, the sergeant is prepared to sue in federal court. The American Humanist Association has taken up his case and will represent him if need be.

It's hard to see how this could not be unconstitutional, not only based on the First Amendment but on the fact that Article VI of the Constitution says that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

While it appears from the rest of that clause that it is thinking about elected or appointed offices, don't forget that at the time the Constitution was framed there was no expectation of a standing army and they would not have even imagined an air force. Given that, and given that we have both a standing army and air force, it surely seems that being a member of the Air Force should be considered a "public trust" under the meaning of that article.

This may seem like a minor thing for an Outrage of the Week - after all, who cares about atheists, there are so few of them - but don't forget that this involves a basic constitutional right and it's not only atheists who would be affected. It could impact agnostics, depending on how strongly they feel about saying they believe in God, and even more directly, there are religions that are not monotheistic, that don't believe in God as a single entity, and still others that don't hold a belief in a "God" that is anything like the Judeo-Christian version.

But all of that is ultimately irrelevant because the issue here remains the same: basic rights. The basic - the fundamental - right to be able to fully participate in society and stripping away that right from a group does not become unimportant just because a majority, even a large majority, of the population feels it is not affected.

It's important for another reason: This is not the first time this sort of evangelizing has been found in the Air Force. Several years ago, the US Air Force Academy faced accusations that evangelical Christians exerted a dominating influence over the institution.

When the Air Force responded with what seemed an honest attempt to emphasize respect for all belief systems, even setting up a pagan/nature religions worship area at the Air Force Academy, it was assailed by right-wing Christians and their allies in Congress on the wacko claim that the efforts to avoid religious favoritism were actually an attack on freedom of religion - "freedom of religion" being defined here as "evangelical Christians being able to say and do whatever they want, including officers telling subordinates what religious practices they should follow."

It was after that -  not immediately after, but not much more than a year after that - that the Air Force started requiring enlistees to declare they believe in God. And then a month later, this is now last November, the Air Force Academy, the same academy earlier found to be overrun with evangelicals abusing their authority, hired a long-time advocate and practitioner of the thoroughly-bogus and often harmful "gay conversion therapy" to oversee its counseling program for young cadets.

So you may still think it's unimportant that an atheist is barred from the Air Force - even though it's not - but I doubt you think it's unimportant that it appears that the most conservative forms of right-wing Christianity still are finding a warm and welcoming embrace at the Air Force academy to the point of controlling the sort of counseling cadets get. That, I suspect you will agree, is an outrage.

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