An Atheist Lawyer’s Alternative Oath September 19, 2009

An Atheist Lawyer’s Alternative Oath

Jen just became a lawyer in Missouri, having passed the state’s Bar Exam. She attended her enrollment ceremony the other day but faced a dilemma.

She was told that all the new lawyers would recite an oath at the end of the event. It sounded harmless at the time. Once she received a copy of it, though, she was disturbed to see four little words at the end of it:


So help me God.

Not “a god” or “god,” but Judeo-Christian, capital-G “God.”

Jen didn’t want to say it.

I know this doesn’t sound like a big deal for theists, but I’m sure religious people wouldn’t feel right pledging an oath to Zeus. Similarly, we don’t want to have to make an oath to a non-existent god.

So what did Jen do?

The doors in the front of the court room opened, the clerk banged the gavel, and everyone stood. After a few comments and congratulations had been given by the Chief Justice and the President of the Board, the Chief Just asked all of the applicants to say the oath with him in unison. The knots in my stomach grew larger. As I began to speak the words that would mark the beginning of my career as an attorney, I suffered from mixed feelings of pride and uneasiness. What would happen if I said an alternative ending? Would the people around me look at me with scorn? Would my admittance be challenged because I had not said the oath in its entirety? Should I even change the last phrase at all? Or should I just suck it up and follow the masses on this one?

She chose an alternative ending.

It’s the same syllable count, but it has far more meaning to her. I think it’s great.

What would you have done in her position?

(Thanks to Jason for the link!)

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  • Richard Wade

    An excellent solution, Jen. Well done, and congratulations. I’m sure that your honor will be far more binding to you than Mr. No Show.

    People often don’t understand the tradition of swearing an oath “on” something. Originally, it was the collateral you put up for your guarantee. Whatever you swore on, that was forfeit if you ever broke your oath. So if you said “I swear on my life,” or “I swear on my mother’s honor” that was what was taken away.

    These mandatory official government oaths to The Great Absentee have got to go.

  • Dave B.

    I always thought the “so help me God” line was a literal plea that God would help you keep the oath. I’d have remained silent for that last line rather than replace or repeat it.

  • Ian

    I didn’t sign the oath for the Engineering Iron Ring for the same reason. Of course they didn’t let me change it so I didn’t get the ring (which isn’t required to practice engineering). Good on her.

    Oath’s like this become hypocritical and pointless if you have to lie to sign them.

  • TXatheist

    Didn’t MO have the problem with tax forms saying you agree your tax form is accurate to the best of your ability so help you god also just a few years ago?

  • Neon Genesis

    You should have said “So say we all” instead and it’s the same amount of syllables too.

  • Rachel

    I actually posted a comment a few weeks ago about having this same dilemma when I began my first term of service with AmeriCorps. I omitted the “So help me God” and struck it out when I signed my oath as well. It immediately outed me to my co-workers, which considering I live in Texas I was pretty worried about. Thankfully I didn’t suffer any negative backlash and when I take my oath for my current term of service, I’ll do the same thing.

  • The Quakers fought for the legal right to not take an oath; most jurisdictions now respect that right, and allow an “affirmation” to be made, instead. It appears that the Missouri Bar permits affirmations, and gives instructions accordingly:

    (b) Every person, before being admitted to practice law in this state, shall take and subscribe the following oath or affirmation (substituting, in instances of affirmation, the word “affirm” for the word “swear” in the first line of such text, and further substituting the words “Under the pains and penalties of perjury” in lieu of the words “So help me God” in the last line thereof):

    ‘Twould be grand if the Supreme Court of Missouri actually informed people of the option to make an affirmation, instead of assuming that no one would ever have conscientious objections to the oath.

  • I understand the desire to get that silly bit removed, but it does seem a bit superstitious to me. It’s not like there is a god that you’re swearing to.

    I’d probably just say it. I really don’t understand the apprehension about saying it if you can’t manage to get them to change it beforehand.

    Maybe that’s just because I haven’t been an atheist for long, and I haven’t run into the situation yet.

  • muggle

    I like on my honor. Kind of says it all. It is, after all, literally on their honor. It’s their reputation that is sacrificed, as it should be, if they don’t uphold the oath. They get caught breaking it, they’re not going to find many people thinking them honorable. Perfect, Jen.

  • Matt D

    MikeTheInfidel said

    I’d probably just say it. I really don’t understand the apprehension about saying it

    I’ve read a lot of your comments Mike and generally find myself nodding my head, but that one surprises me a bit. But each to our own of course. I’m not riding you, just making a comment.

    i would have an issue with it. My wife and her family are religious and always give thanks to god at meal time – never once have i bowed my head or said Amen.

    I learnt recently that our Parliament in Australia commences every sitting with a reading of the Lords Prayer. Were i an elected official I’d be in a real jam.

    Not sure if we still have to swear to god in court – if i get arrested maybe I’ll find out (but they havent caught me yet!!)

  • @Ian: Looks like they have since cut out the nonsense part of the iron ring obligation, according to this version.

  • reggie

    MikeTheInfidel doesn’t understand her apprehension, which is understandable. To some, it would not be a big deal to simply recite the words. However, in her original post, she states:

    “But I could not ignore the last phrase that continued to nag me. I started getting a sick feeling in my stomach. I was about to swear an oath that would be immediately undermined by this one phrase of four small words; words that I did not believe.”

    It was a matter of integrity and honesty. She didn’t want to start here career with a lie.

  • Matt: I view it much the same way as I’d view an oath to Thor. I wouldn’t feel like saying “so help me Thor” actually meant I was professing a belief in Thor, even if other people saw it that way.

    Maybe I’m being a bit too pragmatic; I’m pretty literal-minded. I understand the desire to separate religion from the functions of the state, but for some reason I don’t think this is a battle I’d pick – or, at least, not something I’d lose a lot of sleep over.

  • Jerad

    Matt D: According to yahoo answers (totally credible source!) you don’t have to swear on the bible and can say yes to:

    Do you swear or affirm that the testimony you are about to give is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth under the pains and penalties of perjury?

    Edit: Hmm, other are purporting that what you now are asked (without a bible.) (from another question on yahoo answers.)

    Do you swear or affirm that the testimony you are about to give is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help you God or under the pains and penalties of perjury?

    That I think I’d have to object to.

  • Jerad

    note I’d object by stating “I do affirm that the testimony you are about to give is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth under the pains and penalties of perjury?”

  • I had a very similar experience recently, albeit with much less at stake. I just became a Notary Public in the state of Georgia. When I delivered my paperwork to the courthouse clerk, she pushed a little piece of paper in front of me, and asked me to raise my right hand and read it aloud. It was an oath to be honest and impartial in my dealings, yadda yadda yadda, and at the end of the last sentence it said “so help me God.”

    So I raised my right hand, read the oath, but when I got to that last comma, I just stopped reciting, lowered my hand, turned the paper around and slid it back over to her.

    She never blinked an eye. Now I’m a Notary Public.

  • I would have asked for an alternative oath. They need to know that not everybody believes in God and thinks an oath to him is binding. I do know that there is an alternative oath in Missouri for testifying in court. Maybe, there is one for the bar.

  • Well done and very well said.

  • keddaw

    Passed the bar…
    Found a church/state separation issue…

    If only she knew a good lawyer that could challenge it.

    Surely the first sentence negates the last:
    “I do solemnly swear that I will uphold the Constitution of the United States of America…”
    “So help me God”

  • Shawn

    Kudos to her for taking the oath seriously.

    Did she have to sign a copy of this (the picture above)? If so, how did she handle the printed line?

  • Chris

    When I was admitted to the bar in Ohio recently, there was also some “god language” in the oath, but as I recall the chief justice said we could admit that if we wanted to. I’m surprised nothing similar was said to you. These oaths don’t just offend non-believers; there are several Christian sects who forbid members to swear oaths to god, like Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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