A woman who had just completed federal jury duty in a U.S. Southern District of California court contacted FFRF in late June for help with her concern about her jury oath ending in “so help you God.” Nancy Stockton noticed that witnesses during the trial were sworn without those words.
Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt responded, citing specific cases in which courts have consistently ruled that witnesses and jurors must be allowed to affirm without reference to a deity.
“It appears that jurors in your court are unaware that the option even exists,” noted Schmitt. “Courts should offer the option upfront, protecting jurors from the potential for embarrassment and from discrimination.” She added that the oath called for in California’s civil procedure makes no mention of a deity.
Nancy, who retired after 39 years of teaching, shared her July letter to U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, in which she praised the overall jury experience and the judge’s efficiency but politely and strongly objected to the oath’s religious reference. “As an atheist, I assumed a federal court would be more sensitive than most to my First Amendment concerns.”
She told the judge how she felt as a fourth-grader in 1949 at her school 30 miles north of New York City when the principal announced students would all say the Lord’s Prayer at assemblies, and how the Protestants kept on praying when she was done with her mother’s shorter, Catholic version. “I learned right at that moment I was a second-class citizen. To this day, I don’t know why any 10-year-old had to be put in that position.”
Nancy added that she has volunteered in various capacities all her adult life, votes, answers the call to jury duty and pays taxes without complaint. “And yet I cannot be assured that my right not to believe will be respected.”
Judge Sabraw wrote back two weeks later to express his thanks. “I have now instructed my staff to administer an oath that does not contain religious references. It is an oath sanctioned by law and used by some other judges. The court, as you know, is an institution steeped in history and tradition. Change can be slow in coming, but from time to time, as here, it is necessary. . . . Once again, I thank you for your service and for your suggestion.”