October 25, 2013 Updated: October 25, 2013 at 11:49 pm
The Air Force Academy will make the "so help me God" clause of the cadet honor oath optional, academy officials announced Friday.
"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," said Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, academy superintendent, in a statement. "So, in the spirit of respect, cadets may or may not choose to finish the honor oath with 'so help me God.'"
Military Religious Freedom Foundation founder Mikey Weinstein, who brought the oath to the attention of the academy Oct. 17, said the decision is a victory but expressed concern as to how the optional nature of the clause would be conveyed.
"The Air Force Academy is a constitutional train wreck when it comes to religious rights and freedoms," Weinstein said. "We wouldn't trust them to get the word out on an organizational picnic, much less something of this magnitude."
According to Weinstein, tying the oath "to a religious test violates the no-establishment clause of the Constitution."
Earlier this week, the academy said it was mulling its options, including dumping the entire oath.
Weinstein wanted the clause to be removed entirely. Weinstein has tangled frequently with academy leaders over allegations that cadets are subject to unlawful proselytizing. Earlier this year he purchased a billboard near the school protesting the academy's reference to an Orthodox Jewish website in a memo about religious holidays.
The oath, taken by fourth-class cadets on their last day of basic cadet training, has those who take it swear that they won't lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do.
The oath was created in 1984.
Violations of the code are policed by a cadet honor board and expulsion is the presumed punishment, though violators can be placed on stringent probation.
Beginning with basic cadet training this coming summer, fourth-class cadets will be informed that they have the option to say the clause or leave it out when the oath is administered, said Meade Warthen, an academy spokesman, Friday.
"The leaders and senior cadets will communicate this frequently during" honor, leadership and religious respect lessons, "and in other forums," Warthen said.
The oath is taken by the entire cadet wing each year. The cadet wing honor chair administering the oath "has the option to say or not say 'so help me God,' so this might vary from year to year," Maj. Brus Vidal, director of public affairs at the academy, said Friday in a statement.
The oath is printed in The Contrails, a primer issued to cadets that is updated yearly. The policy change will likely be included in next academic year's edition, Warthen said.
"What does it mean when you say you'll make it optional?" Weinstein said. "Will they put it in parentheses? The best thing would have been not to have the words there, to say, 'You can say 'so help me God, so help me Spiderman, so help me stars and moon.' "
If the academy leaves the words "so help me God" in The Contrails without expressing the clause's optional nature, "we will sue," Weinstein said.