BREAKING NEWS: FFRF files suit against N.J. secretary of state over religious oath

Jim Tosone

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a N.J. resident against the secretary of state for forcing public office candidates to swear a mandatory religious oath. You can read the document here.

James Tosone, the plaintiff, has run for public office in New Jersey several times. Since 2022, Tosone has sought to run for office and has been unable to do so because the Division of Elections will not allow him to verify his candidate form via a secular affirmation in place of a religious oath. Due to his sincerely held convictions, Tosone has been unwilling to swear “so help me God,” since he is a nontheist.

The secretary of state and the state of New Jersey are coercing a statement of belief in a monotheistic deity by requiring nontheists or those worshiping more than one deity to swear “so help me God” in order to run for public office, FFRF asserts. Not only is Tosone, as a nontheist, barred from running for public office under this policy, as are New Jersey citizens who have no religious affiliation (24 percent of the New Jersey population) are also affected, among others. Additionally, the secretary of state and the state of New Jersey are coercing Christians who belong to sects that eschew swearing oaths to a deity, such as some Mennonites or Quakers, to violate both their religions and their consciences in order to run for public office.

The secretary of state’s official policy, as implemented through the Division of Elections, hinders candidates for public office who are unable to swear a religious oath This policy violates the rights of the plaintiff and countless others under Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution, which bars religious tests for public office, as well as the First Amendment, FFRF contends in the complaint filed before the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.

In late 2021, Tosone contacted the Division of Elections by phone and requested that he be allowed to strike out “so help me God” from the oath in order to complete the candidate petition. The Division of Elections responded that the Oath of Allegiance is dictated by statute and that a version of the oath without “so help me God” would not be accepted.

In early 2022, Tosone accessed the candidate petition from the Division of Elections’ website ahead of the 2022 filing deadlines and discovered that the 2022 petition once again contained the same requirement. FFRF sent a letter regarding the religious oath required by the candidate petition to the New Jersey attorney general on May 5, 2022:

Article 6 of the United States Constitution prohibits the government from requiring any kind of religious test for public office. … The U.S. Supreme Court held that this requirement was a violation of both the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution. Likewise, requiring someone who is running for elected office in New Jersey to profess to a god in which they do not believe would make a mockery out of the oath and the solemn promise to support the Constitution.
In addition, the New Jersey Constitution mirrors the federal Constitution by prohibiting a religious test “as a qualification for any office or public trust.”

FFRF hasn’t received a response to this or several follow-up letters sent to the New Jersey secretary of state and Division of Elections.

“The secretary of state and the state of New Jersey have no valid reason or interest in requiring all citizens who wish to run for public office to take an oath that requires them to swear ‘so help me God,” the suit asserts. “The state of New Jersey, the Division of Elections, and the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission have adequate means of ensuring the truthfulness of candidate information without requiring citizens to violate their conscience by swearing ‘so help me God.’”

The complaint requests a permanent injunction (a) prohibiting the secretary of State from requiring citizens running for public office to swear “so help me God,” and (b) ordering the secretary of state to provide candidate petition forms that permit the plaintiff to run for public office without swearing “so help me God.” The plaintiff is also requesting a declaratory judgment that the secretary of state has violated, and is continuing to violate, the U.S. Constitution by promulgating candidate petition forms that require all candidates to swear “so help me God” without the option of a secular affirmation. And the plaintiff requests an order awarding him the costs of this action, including reasonable attorneys’ fees and expenses.

“It’s an egregious violation of freedom of conscience — as well as our Constitution — to compel nontheists to take a religious oath,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “This legal challenge seeks to put an end to this discriminatory and anachronistic practice.”

New Jersey Attorney Paul Grosswald filed the lawsuit, with FFRF attorneys Patrick Elliott and Samantha Lawrence acting as co-counsel. The case was filed in the Trenton Vicinage of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization representing 40,000 freethinkers (atheists, agnostics and other dissenters from religion), including almost 800 current members in New Jersey, that works to protect the separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

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Freedom From Religion Foundation

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