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Atheists sue Alabama over ‘so help me God’ voter registration oath

Atheists sue Alabama over ‘so help me God’ voter registration oath

A miniature flag rests on a copy of the Bible at voter registration at West Philadelphia High School. | (Photo: Reuters)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit against Alabama’s Secretary of State John H. Merrill claiming that the state’s voter registration form is unconstitutional because it includes an oath that says “so help me God.”

“Alabama is the only state in the country that requires voters to register on a form mandating they swear ‘so help me God,’ without allowing any option of a secular affirmation,” the Wisconsin-based atheist group said in a statement announcing it filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, Southern Division this week.

“The Alabama secretary of state excludes Alabama citizens from being able to vote if they are unable to swear a religious oath,” states the lawsuit, filed on behalf of four Alabama residents “who have encountered and objected to this religious test when trying to register to vote.”

It continues, “The secretary of state’s official policy is to hinder the registration of voters who are unable to swear ‘so help me God.’ This policy violates the rights of the plaintiffs and others under the First and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution.”

Randal Cragun, an atheist and one of the four plaintiffs, said the bottom of the voter declaration section warns, “Read and sign under penalty of perjury. … If you falsely sign this statement, you can be convicted and imprisoned for up to five years.”

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Cragun said when he contacted the secretary of state’s office, the director of elections informed him, “There is no legal mechanism to register to vote in Alabama without signing the oath as it is stated.”

“If you cross out a portion, the board of registrars in your county will reject the application and ask you to resubmit,” Cragun was quoted as saying in the FFRF statement.

The office of the secretary of state reportedly told FFRF that the voter registration forms are “prescribed by statute” and would therefore require “legislative action.”

The lawsuit cites a 1961 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, adding: “The United States Supreme Court has held as a settled First Amendment principle that neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person ‘to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.’”

The atheist group is urging the court to require the secretary of state to create additional forms “that allow individuals who are unable to swear ‘so help me God’ to be able to register to vote.”

The naturalization oath for U.S. citizenship also includes the words “so help me God,” and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in April rejected claims that the words violate First Amendment rights of atheists.

“We follow the Supreme Court’s most recent framework and apply American Legion’s presumption of constitutionality to the phrase ‘so help me God’ in the naturalization oath because we consider the inclusion of similar words to be a ceremonial, longstanding practice as an optional means of completing an oath,” the judgment stated in a federal lawsuit that was filed in 2017 by atheist Olga Paule Perrier-Bilbo who moved to the U.S. from France and applied for naturalized citizenship in 2008.

“And because the record does not demonstrate a discriminatory intent in maintaining those words in the oath or ‘deliberate disrespect’ by the inclusion of the words, Perrier-Bilbo cannot overcome the presumption.”

The phrase “so help me God” is optional in the Oath of Allegiance of the U.S.

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