In response to a lawsuit brought by a leading atheist organization, Alabama has decided to allow residents registering to vote to opt out of signing an oath that includes the phrase “So Help Me God.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, an outspoken secular group that advocates for a strict separation of church and state, filed a lawsuit against Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, a Republican, last September. The lawsuit challenged the constitutionality of the state’s mail-in voter registration form, which required applicants to sign a declaration beginning with “I solemnly swear or affirm” and concluding with “So help me God.”
FFRF lawyers believed that this provision violated the First and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution. One of the plaintiffs, atheist Randall Crugan, sought to register to vote in Alabama in November 2019 but did not want to sign the declaration that concluded with “so help me God.”
He was told that “there is no legal mechanism to register to vote in [Alabama] without signing the oath as it is stated” and “If you cross out a portion, the board of registrars in your county will reject the application and ask you to resubmit.” Because he refused to sign the declaration, Crugan was unable to vote in the 2020 election.
In the wake of the lawsuit, the Secretary of State’s office has revised the voter registration form. While it still includes the oath, nonbelievers now have the option to check off a box stating: “Because of a sincerely held belief, I decline to include the final four words of the oath above.”
“Following the introduction of this lawsuit, our office took action to see that an option was provided to voters to either swear a religious oath or opt out when registering to vote,” Merrill said in a statement. “While the language ‘so help me God’ has been included on voter registration applications since well before I took office, this issue was just brought to light, and we remain willing to accommodate all voters of Alabama. All registration applications, online or on paper, were updated on March 8, 2021, to include the option to opt out, if interested.”
In a press release Wednesday, the FFRF and the plaintiffs cheered the “huge constitutional victory for secular voters in Alabama.” According to FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, “Millions of Alabamians were being asked to swear a religious oath as a fait accompli. We warmly thank the plaintiffs, without whom we could not have put an end to this unconstitutional mindgame.”
“Because of this suit, I will finally be able to register to vote in Alabama,” Cragun said. “It is disappointing that the state prevented me from voting in the 2020 elections, but I am looking forward to participating in the future, and I now have a better appreciation of the value my voice and other individual voices contribute to shaping the state.”
The other plaintiffs echoed Cragun’s gratitude. Co-plaintiff Robert Corker proclaimed that he was “proud to have been a part of this effort to secularize voting in the state of Alabama,” adding, “I relish more opportunities to foster inclusiveness for nonbelievers in this state.”
Co-plaintiffs Chris Nelson and Heather Coleman, a married couple, also expressed gratitude “that the state has — at least, begrudgingly — made some concessions to support state-church separation,” promising that “freethinkers in Alabama will continue to push for these reforms.”
As a result of Alabama’s amendment to the voter registration form, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has dropped its lawsuit challenging “the uniquely Alabamian mandatory religious voter registration oath.” Even before the voter registration applications were updated, the Alabama Secretary of State’s office began implementing changes to address FFRF’s concerns.
In November, the office adopted a new rule allowing applicants to strike out the phrase “so help me God” when filling out the voter registration form. The rule directed the Board of Registrars to accept as valid voter registration forms with the phrase “so help me God” crossed out.
Nearly a year before filing the lawsuit, FFRF sent a letter to Secretary Merrill, asking him to “drop the religious oath altogether,” describing it as “unnecessary and irrelevant to voter registration.” According to the letter, “Multiple Alabama residents have contacted us over the past decade” to complain about the religious oath.