The Freedom From Religion Foundation strongly supports a move to make secular affirmations the norm in the New Jersey court system.
A proposed change to N.J. Rules of Evidence 603 will replace religious oaths for witnesses with a standard secular declaration: "Do you solemnly declare and affirm, under penalty of perjury, that the testimony you are about to give will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?" The New Jersey Supreme Court is soliciting public comments on the recommended change.
FFRF enthusiastically backs this reform, the first of its kind, which will end a requirement from the nonreligious and others who do not wish to swear a religious oath to essentially make a declaration of their nonbelief in court. The issue arose in New Jersey after a case in which a juror commented to the judge that she was "surprised" when a witness "did not actually touch the Bible before he testified."
A rapidly increasing segment of America is nonreligious, FFRF points out.
"More than 23 percent of adult Americans are religiously unaffiliated — a group commonly referred to as the 'nones,'" FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler writes to Glenn Grant, acting administrative director of the N.J. courts. "This represents an 8-point increase in the unaffiliated since 2007 and a 15-point jump since 1990, making the 'nones' the fastest growing identification in America. Seven percent of Americans, more than 20 million people, are avowed atheists or agnostics."
And among the young, this pattern is even more pronounced. Approximately 35 percent of Millennials are not religiously affiliated, and 12 percent are atheistic or agnostic.
However, despite the increasing visibility of nonbelievers, many religious people still have intense animus toward this group. An article by two leading researchers noted that atheists "are one of the most despised people in the U.S. today." Atheists also drew the highest disapproval level by far of all groups listed when survey respondents were asked whether they agreed with the statement, "This group does not at all agree with my vision of American society," with 39.6 percent of respondents concurring with this sentiment when it came to atheists.
It is therefore not difficult to understand why many nonbelievers are reluctant to make a public showing of their nonbelief by refusing to swear on a Bible in court: It is very likely that at least some of the jurors or judges will perceive them as a nonbeliever and immediately view them negatively as a result.
It is intimidating for a nonbeliever to be asked to make their nonbelief known in court, and people have reported to FFRF feeling coerced into taking a religious oath instead. They must necessarily either be forced into making a religious oath or risk biasing jurors who may be hostile to anyone unwilling to swear an oath on a Bible, "so help me God." Both of these options are undesirable for nonreligious people, and neither belongs in a government institution that is obligated to keep state and church separate. Using a secular affirmation as the default disposes of the oath's assumption that all are Christians unless they declare otherwise — an assumption that is increasingly inaccurate and offensive in our progressively more pluralistic society.
Providing affirmations for all witnesses is a simple solution that avoids all the problems that arise from unnecessarily bringing matters of personal religious belief into the courtroom. The Freedom From Religion Foundation therefore urges the adoption of this sensible change to the Rules of Evidence.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization promoting the separation of church and state and educating the public on nonbelief. It has more than 27,000 members, including 500-plus in New Jersey, some of whom are attorneys. FFRF has taken complaints from New Jersey attorneys with concerns about Bibles on display in courtrooms to facilitate swearing religious oaths.