FFRF proposes changing religious oath in N.J.


religious candidate oathThe Freedom From Religion Foundation is suggesting a major modification to the unconstitutional religious oath that candidates for office in New Jersey are forced to sign.

When the New Jersey Division of Elections was contacted regarding an alternative to the religious wording, it said that the division did not allow for an alternative to “so help me God” because this was required by state statute. However, the division’s reply seemingly contradicts the fact that the form and statute (N.J.S.A. 41: 1-1) in question suggest parenthetically that an affirmation is allowed to replace the religious oath.

“As secretary of state, you are the chief election official for the state of New Jersey and, as such, you are the official with the authority to correct this constitutional violation,” FFRF Legal Fellow Karen Heineman writes to N.J. Secretary of State Tahesha Way. “We believe that the person contacted at the Division of Elections misunderstands the statutory requirement and the necessary availability of a secular alternative. We ask that an alternative form without the religious wording be provided or that the form explicitly allow for the religious wording to be omitted or struck. Candidates must not be forced to choose between either signing a religious oath they do not believe or not running for office.”

The Division of Elections previously recommended contacting the attorney general or the Legislature to change the statutory requirement. FFRF sent a letter to the attorney general last year explaining the unconstitutionality of a religious requirement for office but received no reply.

“First and foremost, Article 6 of the United States Constitution prohibits the government from requiring any kind of religious test for public office,” Heineman wrote. “In the bedrock case examining a requirement for an oath for public office, the U.S. Supreme Court held that ‘neither a state nor the federal government can constitutionally force a person ‘to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.’ … 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” (Article I, paragraph 4). And the oath for state legislators is defined and does not reference any god (Article IV, section VIII, paragraph 1). This section also specifically states that an oath or affirmation is allowed. Plus, the state Constitution allows for an oath or affirmation for public officers and employees (Article VII, section I, paragraph 1).

FFRF successfully brought suit two years ago in federal court against the state of Alabama for requiring voters to sign a statement on the voter registration form that ended with “so help me God” with no secular option offered. The case was settled, and the form now includes an option to decline the last four words.

Today, almost a third of adult Americans identify as atheists, agnostics or nothing in particular, with the number of “Nones”(religiously unaffiliated) in New Jersey at 30 percent.

“New Jersey is effectively prohibiting a significant portion of its population from running for office — or forcing it to lie,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It’s high time for this unconstitutional practice to be brought to an end.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with 40,000 members, including more than 700 members in New Jersey. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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