MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Four atheists have filed a federal lawsuit to challenge language on Alabama’s voter registration form that includes an oath ending with “So help me God.”
“The Alabama Secretary of State is violating basic First Amendment freedoms by unconstitutionally compelling Alabama — and United States — citizens who want to register to vote to swear ‘so help me God’ in violation of their conscience,” the lawsuit, filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), states.
“The Plaintiffs seek to ensure that the Secretary of State provides forms that allow individuals who are unable to swear ‘so help me God’ to be able to register to vote.”
According to the complaint, one of the atheists contacted the office of Secretary of State John Merrill to inquire if they could register to vote without signing their name to an oath that includes “so help me God.”
“There is not a legal mechanism to register to vote in AL without signing the oath as it is stated,” Director of Elections Clay Helms responded. “If you cross out a portion, the board of registrars in your county will reject the application and ask you to re-submit.”
FFRF also sent a letter to the office to assert that the inclusion of the phrase is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment’s prohibition on “respecting an establishment of religion.” The group opined that the phrase must either be removed or a separate form must be provided for those who do not wish to swear to God.
Attorney Hugh Evans replied, contending that any changes to the form “would require legislative action.”
“The Secretary of State and the State of Alabama have no valid reason or interest in requiring all voters to take an oath that requires them to swear ‘so help me God,'” the lawsuit states.
“County registrars and the State of Alabama have adequate means of ensuring the truthfulness of voter information without requiring voters to violate their conscience by swearing ‘so help me God,'” it claims. “Indeed, the information provided by voters is objectively either correct or incorrect, regardless of any oath.”
The legal challenge seeks for the court to declare the inclusion a violation of the Establishment, Free Exercise, Free Speech, and Equal Protection Clauses and to order the state to make forms available that don’t include the phrase.
As previously reported, earlier this year, a French-born woman who lives in Massachusetts has lost her appeal effort to have the phrase “so help me God” removed from the United States naturalization oath, as the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that its inclusion is not unconstitutional.
While the case differs in that the court noted that the woman could simply not say the phrase, it noted that “there is an established history of invocations of God in public oaths and statements tracing back to the founding era.”
The panel pointed to the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in American Legion v. American Humanist Association, which found that removing public faith-based displays could “strike many as aggressively hostile to religion” and would therefore not be neutral as the Constitution requires.
The preamble to the 1861 Alabama Constitution mentions God, opening with, “We the people of the State of Alabama, having separated ourselves from the government known as the United States of America, and being now by our representatives in Convention assembled, and acting in our sovereign and independent character, in order to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity — invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God — do ordain and establish the following Constitution and form of government for the State of Alabama.”