Thursday, January 17, 2013

How To Take Public Office In Louisiana Without Swearing To God

Last fall I was elected unopposed to the Board of Aldermen in the village in which I live. Before I could take office, however, I had to fulfill the following requirement set forth in the Louisiana Constitution:

Section 30.  Every official shall take the following oath or affirmation:  "I, .  .  ., do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the constitution and laws of the United States and the constitution and laws of this state and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me as .  .  ., according to the best of my ability and understanding, so help me God."

As an atheist I wasn’t going to swear an oath that ended with “so help me God.” It would have been dishonest.

Since the Oath of Office section of the Louisiana Constitution provides an affirmation option, I was pretty certain I would not be compelled to say “so help me God.” Even though the language of the section does not make it clear that the phrase “so help me God” is not required of those who choose to affirm, it would make no sense to interpret it any other way. The whole point of the affirmation option is to accommodate those people who have a conscientious objection to swearing religious oaths. Any statement that ends with “so help me God” is clearly a religious oath, regardless of which verb was used.

Although I was confident that I would have no trouble getting through the spoken affirmation without violating my conscience, I wasn’t so sure about the Oath of Office form that public officials in Louisiana are required to sign. That form reproduces the words of the Oath of Office, with the phrase “so help me God” printed immediately before the blank for the public official’s signature. I could easily omit the religious language from the spoken affirmation, but I couldn’t so easily omit the religious language from a pre-printed form that I was supposed to sign.

As it turned out I was reading Herb Silverman’s Candidate Without a Prayer last November. It’s a very interesting memoir and is relevant to this post because Silverman was faced with a similar form when he was trying to become a notary in South Carolina. Silverman solved the problem by striking through the phrase “so help me God” before he signed his notary application. South Carolina rejected Silverman’s application, the case went to court, and eventually Silverman won. (There’s lots more background to the Silverman story, but I’ll leave that for you to read about on your own.)

I decided to follow Silverman’s example. I would have preferred to not have to strike through the words “so help me God” since I figured some people would see that as a hostile act and it wasn't my intention to be hostile to anyone. However, I couldn’t think of any better solution. Of course, the ideal solution would be for the state to provide an Oath of Office form that does not contain a religious declaration, at least to those people who request a secular affirmation, but I expect that change would have to be made by either the state legislature or the courts.

In mid-November I emailed the Commissions Division of the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office and asked whether they had any established policies or any guidance regarding the affirmation option. I gave a summary of my situation and explained how I planned to handle the spoken affirmation and the Oath of Office form. I didn’t get a response, so I emailed them again around the end of November. Still, no response.

Then, I emailed the First Assistant Secretary of State. His response was quick, cordial, and professional. He apologized for the lack of communication from the Commissions Division and he asked for my phone number so that he could have the Secretary of State’s legal counsel call me.

A few minutes later the SOS’s legal counsel called. She was also cordial and professional. We briefly discussed the relevant Louisiana law and how the affirmation option should be exercised. Apparently, they did not have any established policy on the details of affirming. (I’m not surprised by that since I expect that very few public officials in Louisiana choose to affirm.) I told her that during the spoken affirmation I intended to say “affirm” instead of “swear” and to leave off “so help me God.” She indicated that that was acceptable. I told her that I planned to strike through the words “so help me God” on the Oath of Office form before signing. I mentioned the Silverman case. She assured me that striking through those words would not cause them to reject my form. She said she would send a note to the Commissions Division so that they would know they should accept my form.

When I went to the courthouse in late December to make my spoken affirmation, I told the clerk that I was choosing to affirm. Still, during his prompting he said “swear” and “so help me God.” I said “affirm” instead of “swear” and left off “so help me God.” I also reminded him at the end that I was affirming. I don’t think he was trying to be difficult. I think he just didn’t know how the affirmation is supposed to work. I struck through the phrase “so help me God” before signing my forms (two copies have to be signed and filed) and there wasn’t any problem.

I was very pleased with how smoothly everything went. There was a bit of confusion, but at no point did I sense any hostility from anyone. If more Louisianans choose a secular affirmation, maybe even the confusion can be reduced.


Anonymous said...

Would it be OK to strike out "God" and write in "Zeus"? The State of Louisiana should be more explicit about which god we are addressing. Imagine the form saying "so help me Jehovah." May as well, as that is the god they mean.

Edwin North said...

It is distressing that the language is not clearer, or that provisions are not made for secular elected officials,how ever I am pleased to hear that aside from some confusion this went smoothly.
As I read the article my cynic was waiting for the proverbial excrement to be scattered by the oscillating atmospheric acceleration device.
It could have been much worse,and I am pleased there was no fall out from theist bureaucrats

David said...

It's ridiculous that this is still an issue now. Considering the many religions and beliefs represented in legislatures, it's baffling that more states aren't adopting a belief-neutral oath of office. (Well, we know why.) All in all, nicely and diplomatically handled.

When are we going to "stop being so damned respectful" of religion? Sigh.

NewEnglandBob said...

The entire oath and affirmation process is a joke. So many politicians are corrupt and this process makes no difference to them

TychaBrahe said...

Since I imagine no politician wants to have it on record that he or she is lying, especially at the beginning of the term, I doubt Randall would want to insert the name of another deity. Personally, I wouldn't mind swearing in the name of Ceiling Cat, whom I occasionally profess to believe in. I wouldn't mind contributing to the campaign of a Neo-Pagan to test this, though.

Ned Ludd said...

The difference between "swear" and "affirm" is clearly established in Federal law. If you "affirm", you do not have to say "so help me god".

Mark O'Leary said...

On the matter of "affirm" vs. "swear," the origin of this practice is the refusal of some Christians (and a very few others) to swear any oath, which they believe to be biblically prohibited.

Writing in "Zeus" in place of "God" would be a huge mistake, unless the person expressly wishes not to be taken seriously.