It took the threat of a lawsuit before the Air Force agreed on Wednesday to allow an airman to omit the phrase "So help me God" as part of a required oath. They claimed the airman, stationed at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, was ineligible to reenlist because he crossed out the phrase on his reenlistment form.
For many people of good will, the controversy will rile them up. "Why make a big deal out of words that the majority of Americans believe in?" Just cross your fingers if you must, and say the words. Why rock the boat?
Here's why: The incident betrays a subtext of intolerance and hostility toward secular people embedded in American culture and public institutions. The Air Force was ready to end a man's military career because he would not submit to its religious demands.
To secular Americans, requiring an oath to God is like asking a Jewish airman to swear, "So help me Jesus" or a Christian to say, "So help me Allah." The objection to forcing the oath on nonbelievers should be obvious. It's not.
But a new campaign is hoping to change all that. Openly Secular, launching Saturday, is a new coalition of more than two dozen secular groups -- one of the largest of its kind -- coming together with the goal of raising awareness of the numbers of non-religious people in the country. We include not only atheists and agnostics, but our allied organizations include religious people of many denominations who cherish the Founding Fathers' ideal of church-state separation.
Secular Americans make up a huge and growing stratum of society. Atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and the non-religious make up 20 percent of Americans overall and fully a third of Millennials under 30 years old. But until secular people come forward and introduce themselves, the misconceptions marginalizing them will persist.
The polls are pretty startling. A Pew poll this year found that nearly half of Americans say it's necessary to believe in God to be a moral person. Another current poll found Americans would rather vote for an adulterous or pot-smoking candidate for President than one who is an atheist.
Many religious Americans would be startled to discover how many non-believers they already know and like. Too many religious Americans are convinced they can't trust people who don't subscribe to a faith. The truth is, they are constantly trusting nonbelievers; they just don't realize it.
Secular people are not just academics and scientists -- although most academics and 93 percent of the National Academy of Sciences are non-believers. Secular people are in police departments protecting streets from crime. They are taxi drivers, waiters, shopkeepers. They are doctors and nurses treating the sick. And they are serving in the military, putting their lives on the line to protect the country.
Look at the videos on "OpenlySecular.org" to see average, hard-working Americans come forward and talk about their lives as nonbelievers. The Openly Secular coalition hopes to eliminate the social costs of coming forward. It is lamentable that people fear they are risking their jobs, businesses and personal relationships, simply through being true to who they are.
One day soon, the stigma and disdain will be so diminished that allowing an airman to reenlist in the Air Force without swearing to a deity he doesn't believe in won't have to become a federal case.