The Missouri Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision on Feb. 13 upholding the constitutionality of a statute prescribing a "So help me God" oath on a tax form challenged by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its Missouri plaintiff Robert Oliver.
The decision, written by Justice Michael A. Wolfe, did offer one consolation: ". . . Oliver is entitled to a declaratory judgment that he is free . . . to cross off 'So help me God,' if he so chooses."
The decision stopped short of ordering any revision of the tax form.
The statute makes failure to sign the oath a misdemeanor, and imposes fines and/or jailtime.
Only Missouri citizens living in third or fourth class counties are forced to sign a religious oath.
Robert Oliver, who lives in Christian County, refused to sign the oath in January 1998, writing and signing his own affirmation "under penalty of perjury" which the Christian County assessor's office refused to accept. The assessor referred him to the state tax commission, which told the assessor's office to accept the form.
When the state office issued a memo ordering all third and fourth class counties to comply with the statutes and retain "So help me God" in the oath, the Foundation filed suit in federal court. The lawsuit was thrown out, with the federal judge ruling tax law challenges must be filed in state court. The Foundation refiled, losing at the county level.
But Foundation president Anne Gaylor said, "We truly did expect to prevail at the Missouri Supreme Court on our claim that the Missouri statute violates the equal protection clause."
The 13-page decision admits the use of the oath "is indeed an invitation to express a belief in God." Ronnie White was among the justices signing it.
"Oliver and the Freedom From Religion Foundation argue that the Missouri Constitution, in article 1, sections 5 to 7, has a greater wall separating church and state and that, whatever the outcome under the First Amendment, the Missouri Constitution makes the reference to God unconstitutional. Oliver and the Freedom From Religion Foundation seem to read our constitution as being hostile to religion," wrote the court.
The Court suggests a person who wishes to affirm could simply sign the "affirmation and simply ignore, without deleting, the references to 'swear' and to 'So Help me God'. . . . In any event, when a taxpayer opts to affirm, the words 'So help me God' are surplus."
Of course, ending an "affirmation" with the words "So help me God" renders that affirmation meaningless, Gaylor noted. She called the decision "doublespeak."
The Foundation has 30 days to review its options.