If you want to register to vote in Alabama, you must read and sign a declaration that includes a religious reference:
I solemnly swear or affirm to support and defend the constitution of the United States and the State of Alabama and further disavow any belief or affiliation with any group which advocates the overthrow of the governments of the United States or the State of Alabama by unlawful means and that the information contained herein is true, so help me God.
Some people may just ignore that, but let’s be clear: That’s a religious reference that has no business on any kind of voter registration form, much less in a declaration every person needs to sign in order to gain a right they already have.
It’s not just innocuous either. If you sign that statement without actually agreeing with what it says, it’s perjury. That form even says that anyone who “falsely” signs the statement could be “convicted and imprisoned for up to five years.” That means Alabama atheists who don’t want to swear an oath to God are technically committing a crime by doing what they must in order to vote.
Last November, atheist Randal Cragun wanted to register to vote. But he couldn’t honestly sign that declaration. So he contacted the office of the Secretary of State and asked for advice on what to do. They told him he had no alternatives. Sign the form or don’t vote. He was also told, “If you cross out a portion [of the oath], the board of registrars in your county will reject the application and ask you to re-submit.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to state officials on Cragun’s behalf, but they were told the same thing. There was no remedy. Unless lawmakers passed a bill to change the oath — good luck with that — nothing would change.
That’s why FFRF is now filing a federal lawsuit against the state on behalf of Cragun and three other atheists. They say in the complaint:
The Secretary of State and the State of Alabama are coercing a statement of belief in a monotheistic deity by requiring nontheists to swear “so help me God” in order to register to vote.
… 48 states in the United States do not require voters to swear “so help me God” in order to register to vote. The lone exception, North Dakota, does not require voters to register at all. Alabama is the only state that has voter registration forms that violate the rights of conscience of voters who are nontheists.
All of this could be remedied if Alabama either gives atheists the exact same form without the religious wording or removes the unnecessary words from the oath altogether. Instead, it may take a court order for them to keep voting secular, just as it should be.
The plaintiffs are also asking for a declaratory judgment that the secretary of state has violated the U.S. Constitution by issuing voter registration forms that require all registrants to swear “so help me God” without the option of a secular affirmation.
“The secretary of state has willfully excluded nontheist citizens from registering to vote,” says FFRF Senior Litigation Counsel Patrick Elliott, “and is coercing a statement of belief in a monotheistic god by requiring nontheists to swear a religious oath.”
“It is deplorable that in our secular nation nontheistic citizens are encountering a religious test to register to vote,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “No citizen should have to choose between their right to vote and their freedom of conscience.”
It’s absurd that atheists have to do all this work in order to get the state of Alabama to do the bare minimum. But those plaintiffs are showing a lot of courage by fighting this absurd law in a state where alleged child molester and Ten Commandments enthusiast Roy Moore twice headed up the Supreme Court and Christianity is practically baked into the culture.
None of that, however, means the state can deviate from keeping the government secular.