Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Ban on the Bible Oath

"Do you solemnly swear that you will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you G-d?" 
Anyone testifying in a court of law in the United States hears this phrase, or a very similar variation, and agrees to the statement. This is customary in many judiciary systems, as it is important to affirm the validity of the statements which one makes in a court of law. The controversy comes, however, when attempting to define the proper oath, and what to swear on. Britain is currently debating the oath on the Bible before testifying in court. This could set an important precedent for many other countries in the global system, including the United States where such an issue is already extremely controversial.

Recently, a Bristol Magistrate, Ian Abrahams, proposed the radical notion of doing away with all religiously affiliated oaths in court. Instead of swearing on any religious book, witnesses and defendants would take a secular pledge that would allow them to better understand the consequences of their testimony. It would also apply to everyone more equitably. The new oath would read something to this effect: "I promise very sincerely to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and I understand that if I fail to do so I will be committing an offense for which I will be punished and may be sent to prison". Groups such as the National Secular Society embrace the change, but others such as the Revd. Arun Arora of the Church of England disagree, believing the change to be political correctness taken too far. While the Ministry of Justice declares that it is not planning on changing the oath anytime soon, the matter is still a contentious issue within current society.

Many previous posts have discussed such intertwining of state and religion, with issues like "in G-d we Trust" on our money, in our Pledge of Allegiance, and as our national motto. This time, the focus is on the Bible being used for oaths such as before testimony in court and even being sworn into the Presidency. Should we be using religious texts for these events when we've been told our Constitution intends for a wall of separation between the church and the state? To be clear, in US courts you have not had to swear on the Bible since the 60s - the issue is whether to ban taking oaths on any religious books whatsoever.

As we grow ever more concerned about religious diversity we begin to see common practices that may have been rooted in religious traditions as establishment of that original religion - the historical/traditional argument. Yes, the United States is overwhelmingly a Christian nation and Presidents have been swearing on the Bible since George Washington himself, but as a modern country we recognize that there are many people of very differing religious faiths as well as those who choose not to worship at all. Not only was the Constitution written to protect minorities, it explicitly prevents an establishment of religion by the state. In the world we live in, we can no longer excuse the practices we engage in to religious tradition or majority.


Some would even argue that people swearing on the Bible could be degrading to Christianity. The practice of taking an oath with the Bible was instituted when most, if not all people, were G-d fearing. This meant that they understood the consequences of the oath they were taking, and knew that if they lied, they were to be judged by their G-d. Today, however, many people do not think twice about the oath they're taking and its relation to G-d's judgement. Because of this, the new proposed oath suggests mentioning that the swearer will be punished with prison for lying to the court. This change would make the oath more realistic, and might convince people to think twice before committing perjury.  

And this applies to other religious texts as well. Let's discuss the prospect of swearing on any holy book. Today, people are allowed to take an oath on their preferred religious scripture, but where do we draw the line? As with all church/state discussions, we come to the dreaded 'slippery slope'. Many people argue that the courts cannot judge the sincerity of a religion, so how does the court decide which books are acceptable to swear upon. What if you belong to the Church of Deathly Hallows? Besides, allowing everyone to use their own religious text is great, until it leads to prejudice and discrimination. There is no way to dissuade someone's biases, and if that juror sees the defendant taking an oath on the Qur'an he may be immediately prejudiced. 

Additionally, it may be argued that getting rid of religious texts in oath taking situations would be considered favoring atheism, but preferenciating non-religion over religion might not be such a bad idea in this case. 

Overall, I believe that we should change the oath, as well as remove religious texts from our courts.

How do you feel? Are you worried about people not truly understanding the consequences of lying in court? Should there be a high and impenetrable wall of separation here, or is banning religious books taking it too far? If so, what regulations would be made to decide which books are acceptable? 

18 comments:

Nicole D said...

I personally think this is a great idea. I have always been concerned that taking an oath on a bible may not be taken seriously by those citizens who are not highly religious. In many instances those brought before a court are not concerned with how they are seen in the eyes of God. Therefore, there would be nothing preventing them from lying to a courtroom if their only punishment would be in relation to a religion they may or may not believe has any value. I do not think that removing religious texts from a courtroom would really be disfavoring religion as much as it would be ensuring that every person taking the oath has the same magnitude of reasoning to want to tell the truth.

SC said...

I often always wondered why people swore on the bible, and why the issue of establishment wasn't raised. I agree that the bible oath should be eliminated. Inside a courtroom, where everyone has the right to be represented fairly, is the last place I would want there to be a religious bias. While the bible oath does favor christianity, it also could potentially insult it if someone who is not christian takes the oath. In addition, taking the bible oath serves little to no purpose if the person taking the oath is not christian.

Maddie C. said...

I agree with Tyler that the oath should be changed. Swearing on the bible and ending the oath with “so help you God” clearly makes the act one based on Christianity and so it is plainly religious. The oath is not neutral because it favors the Christian religion over other religions and religion over non-religion. In addition, the oath might not be as effective because those who do not believe in the Christian religion or any god might not feel as obligated to uphold this oath as it does not coincide with their beliefs. It is important for the oath to be neutral in order for it to be relevant for all who take it.

Cori T said...

I think that the new oath should be introduced and that people should have the choice of which to take (and which book to swear on should someone choose the religious one). I think that Tyler brings up an interesting point about a jury being prejudiced based on the book that someone swears the oath on, but I still feel like people testifying should have the choice. For people who are religious, I believe that the religious oath would still carry more weight with them then the secular one. Allowing the choice also respects the oath's history in the US and is a good way to accommodate both religion and non-religion.

Dylan Smith said...

I completely agree with Cori here. It would clearly be preferring non religion over religion to completely remove the practice of swearing on the bible and saying the words so help me God. We have seen that the tradition argument has had great influence, simply look at Marsh v Chambers for confirmation. I believe this is similar to Marsh v Chambers but I like the compromise of offering a non religious method of swearing in court. This would properly give preference to all, regardless of religious belief. I think the court has, on occasion, neglected the implications of the establishment clause in order to keep a long standing tradition as may be the case in Marsh v Chambers. I'm not sure I agree with this but I do think it is important to preserve the religious freedom that was ensured by the first amendment. Cori's proposition preserves religious freedom while ensuring no establishment.

Mike Spear said...

I would prefer the revised oath over the traditional one. I feel that non religious individuals would fail to see the seriousness of being sworn into oath if the oath in question appears to be religious in nature. I feel that it is important to take out "G-d" and make it more clear that this is a legally binding oath that requires the individuals to tell the truth, or potentially face legal consequences. The court system, at any level, must remain secular in its pursuit to seek the truth and I feel that revising the oath would make this goal much more apparent. In addition I feel that taking the oath out shows no hostility toward religious individuals.

Benjamin S said...

I believe too that a choice should exist. I would go even to the extent to say that all religions (or-non religions) could propose an oath to be approved by the courts. Swearing under God is dated if it’s the only option, and an oath has more impact if it actually means something to the person participating. Tailoring said oath would alleviate any concerns over the oath’s content and make the participant more willing to stay truthful in their testimony. Also in doing it in this way, I see less of an excuse for a jury to display prejudice as everyone is accommodated for.

Jennie M. said...

I agree that there should be a choice between taking an oath on a religious text and taking a non-religious oath. Requiring a religious oath might make people who do not believe in any God or believe in a non-theistic religion uncomfortable and would not hold any meaning for them.

I'm not completely persuaded that oaths based on religion need to exist at all, but I understand that they have been a part of American legal history. I don't necessarily think that history requires them to remain now.

Yessica M said...

I don't agree that someone should be able to choose between taking an oath on a religious text and taking a non-religious oath. If individuals do not take the religious oath seriously and are given the option to choose that oath or a secular oath, most likely they would choose the religious oath since they do not abide by that faith and odds are that they would careless which religious book they are taking the oath with. I think that the revised oath should be introduced to all courts and more people will be more aware that if they do not testify truthfully there will be serious consequences. I highly doubt that someone would say that the court is preferring non-religion over non-religion. I think that by having this revised oath there will be neutrality in our courts, something that should have been done/proposed a long time ago.

Terry B said...

I believe the oath should be taking out of the court system all together. You are telling the American people to swear on a God that some may not believe in (Giving some the right to lie on the stand without any remorse). This would violate other religion First Amendment in which they are force and told to swear on a bible and if not will be delivered a punishment. I'm surprise they still do the oath, especially during religion cases other than those who don't believe in the Bible God.

Maggie S. said...

I think the God language should be taken out of the oath, but disagree with some of the comments that suggest an option should be given as to which oath is taken. In a courtroom, the person taking the oath is vowing to tell the truth as a citizen of this country, not as a religious or non-religious person. The authority to which they should be answering is the US government and our legal system, and the only way to ensure everyone is applying the same weight to the oath is to make it about respect for the legal system and its consequences, and our shared government--this is the only common ground we can be sure of.

Tyler J said...

Cori brought of a very interesting proposal that I had not thought about - introducing the non-religious oath, yet leaving the possibility of the religious one for those who wished to use it. At first I thought this was a good resolution to the issue because people who do believe in the religious consequences would understand the religiously motivated oath they are taking. However, Maggie's comment persuaded me back to my original belief. Within our court system, people should be answering to the United States government, and following the laws set forth by them - not those in the Bible or whichever other religious text one may choose.

Babbler said...

Explaining the consequences of lying in a court of law should be sufficient.

george said...

I'm a practicing Christian, and I was just reading Matthew 5:33-37, in which Jesus instructs against taking holy oaths. Later in Matthew (22:15-22), regarding taxes, Jesus says "Give to Cesar what is Cesar's and to God what is God's." Of course, this is pre-church, but that instruction suggests a preference for separation of church and state to me. So it would make sense to me to replace the religious oaths with a legal contract to the court.

Unknown said...

So as an atheist living in the south, I was recently at court, where on the outside of the building was large lettering reading "In God We Trust". I just don't know how that is constitutionally legal. But then inside the courtroom there was quite a bit of emphasis on 'swearing' on the bible. While I would have loved to elaborate, I simply said "I will pass"

Ken C said...

Unfortunately, this has been an issue in our country even before it was a country. In the 1600's Roger Williams, a Puritan minister, raised similar objections to religious oaths in his trial before other Puritan magistrates and ministers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. For this and other "dangerous" opinions he was banished from Massachusetts. He fled and became the first founder of a state guaranteeing religious freedom - Rhode Island. For an excellent account of this issue in colonial New England (with some reflections on the present, and including Roger Williams' religious objections to such oaths in a civil context) see the recent book by Alan Johnson entitled "The First American Founder: Roger Williams and Freedom of Conscience", copyright 2015 by Mr. Johnson, with a separate index entry for "oaths".

Unknown said...

Traditionally the Bible was used to swear upon as it is and contain the standards of right and wrong. It's a Holy Bible meaning without blemish and pure. Swearing upon the Word of God was considered the highest degree by which you could swear.

Could You GTOFM said...

This past summer I was involved in an attempted rape case in rural North Carolina. Upon filing my report, I had to swear on a bible. When I filed my restraining order (Charlotte, NC city-center), I had to swear on the bible. The 3 times I had to go to court in the back woods of Iredell County, I had to swear on the bible.

I am agnostic. I do not necessarily believe in a god and if I did I am not sure my beliefs would align with christianity or the bible they had me swear on. I told the truth, but that is because I am a good and honest person, but that book had nothing to do with it and I felt uncomfortable putting my hand on it. The only thing false I said that whole trial was "so help me god" because I simply do not believe that.

If I felt more passionate about religion, I would be very upset by having to do this. As an assault victim, there is already a loss of pride, control, and self-esteem. When you force me to conform to your religious customs and make a vow on the book that upholds your values HURTS.

My point is, this STILL EXISTS. Now, I am not too angry, but when you force a person to conform to your beliefs and make serious affirmations to your beliefs it devalues my beliefs and makes me feel like I don't even have a fighting chance. I didn't by the way. The ruling was not guilty and it was an incredibly strong case with 2 witnesses that caught him in the act, Iredell County has let a serial rapist go free in Charlotte. The bible belt needs change, this place is sick.