WEST ALLIS, Wisc. — A police department in Wisconsin has agreed to remove the words “before God” from its code of ethics and officer oath following the receipt of a complaint from a prominent professing atheist organization.
“The West Allis Department Code of Ethics has now been modified and is taken verbatim from the Wisconsin Administrative Code,” West Allis Police Chief Patrick Mitchell wrote on Oct. 24 in response to a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).
“I will constantly strive to achieve these objectives and ideals, dedicating myself before God to my chosen profession … law enforcement,” it read.
FFRF asserted that citing God in the code and oath is unconstitutional because it could be considered a religious test for serving.
“Altering a mandatory oath to require West Allis law enforcement officers to dedicate themselves ‘before God’ is unconstitutional. There is no legitimate reason to add a religious phrase into a state-mandated secular oath,” its letter read.
“Article VI of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from requiring any kind of religious test for an ‘office or public trust,’ which includes the position of police officer,” FFRF contended. “Officers who do not believe in God should not be forced to choose between swearing to a religious oath against their conscience or outing themselves as nonbelievers by refusing to recite the oath as written.”
The organization therefore asked that the police department remove the words “before God” from the oath. It noted that the Wisconsin Administrative Code has nearly identical language, but does not include “before God.”
Last Monday, Mitchell advised that God had been removed from the Code of Ethics, and subsequently also the officer oath, to reflect the wording in the Administrative Code.
“We’re pleased that the police department deemed it proper to modify its code of ethics and oath,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor in a statement on Monday announcing the development. “The use of religious language was unconstitutional and forced some cops to be dishonest.”
As previously reported, the Wisconsin Constitution, approved in 1848, begins with an acknowledgment of God.
“We, the people of Wisconsin, grateful to Almighty God for our freedom, in order to secure its blessings, form a more perfect government, insure domestic tranquility and promote the general welfare, do establish this Constitution,” it reads.
The Constitution also declares that the “right of every person to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of conscience shall never be infringed … nor shall any control of, or interference with, the rights of conscience be permitted, or any preference be given by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship.”
It does additionally state that “[n]o religious tests shall ever be required as a qualification for any office of public trust under the state, and no person shall be rendered incompetent to give evidence in any court of law or equity in
consequence of his opinions on the subject of religion.”
However, according to Bill Fortenberry of The Federalist Papers Project, “To understand the true purpose of the religious test clause, we must hearken back to the Corporation Act of 1661. This was the first of three Test Acts which were implemented in England and which remained in effect until 1828.”
“Under these acts, no one could hold office in England unless he swore an oath of fealty not to God, but rather to the doctrines of the Church of England. This was the kind of religious test which the founders prohibited,” he explained. “They had no objection to biblical qualifications. What they objected to was the requirement that all government officials be forced to swear allegiance to the codified doctrines of an established church.”