No Equal Protection for Unbelievers in Missouri

Missouri Supreme Court Doublespeak

It was a miscarriage of justice when the Missouri Supreme Court ruled unanimously on February 13 to uphold the constitutionality of a statute requiring a So help me God” oath on a tax form.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and our Missouri plaintiff Robert Oliver take some consolation in the Court’s ruling that Mr. Oliver is permitted to strike the words “So help me God” from his personal property tax assessment form. But the Court should have overturned the statute for two reasons.

First, as the decision admits, “The guiding principle is that no one can be required by the government to acknowledge the existence of, or belief in, a deity.” Then why did the Court approve a religious oath on a tax form?

Second, it should have invalidated the statute because it creates a double standard, requiring a mandatory oath to a deity on tax assessment forms for citizens in third and fourth class counties, but not imposing a religious oath on citizens in first class counties. Those living in first class counties are given the standard warning of the “pains and penalties” of perjury–which is the only appropriate way a government should remind its citizens of the legal implications of signing a statement attesting to the truth.

The unmistakable implication is that people who live in poorer, less populated counties need to be reminded of the wrath of a deity in order to be honest. A news reporter researching this issue concluded that this double standard dates to the turn of the 20th century when concern (or stereotypes) about the making of “moonshine” in rural areas was rampant!

People of good sense and good will should be able to agree that the State of Missouri is wrong in imposing a religious oath upon some of its citizens for discriminatory reasons. If a resident of a third or fourth class county fails to sign the oath containing “So help me God” on the property tax assessment form, the statute provides for a misdemeanor conviction, with fines and jailtime penalties. Those living in first class counties who have scruples against signing a religious oath face no such dilemma or threat of prosecution.

The facts of this case are straightforward. Our plaintiff Robert Oliver refused in good conscience to sign the religious oath on his 1998 personal property tax form when he noticed it contained the words “So help me God.” Instead he wrote and signed his own affirmation “under penalty of perjury,” which the Christian County assessor’s office refused to accept. This placed Mr. Oliver in legal jeopardy. The state tax commission eventually instructed the assessor’s office to accept Mr. Oliver’s altered form in that particular instance. But later that spring the state tax office ordered all third and fourth class counties to comply with the statute, mandating the oath must be signed and must end with the words “So help me God.”

That is when we decided to go to court.

Our lawsuit correctly invoked the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and its corollary clause in the Missouri State Constitution, both of which prohibit states from making or enforcing any law abridging the privileges or immunities of citizens or denying any person “the equal protection of the laws.”

The equal protection clause of the federal constitution was originally adopted to guarantee the rights of freed slaves, although its protections encompass anyone who faces invidious forms of discrimination. Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White himself publicly and recently faced discrimination when his nomination to a higher court was sabotaged by John Ashcroft. How could Justice White and other justices so cavalierly dismiss the rights of another set of minorities?

Our complaint and briefs correctly pointed out that the Missouri Constitution provides for a far stricter separation of church and state than the federal constitution. Justice Michael A. Wolfe, who wrote the decision for the court, interpreted this to mean: “Oliver and the Freedom From Religion Foundation seem to read our constitution as being hostile to religion.”

That is untrue. We properly read the Constitution as requiring government neutrality toward religion and irreligion. We notice the Court did not argue that the absence of “So help me God” from tax forms designed for residents of first-class counties indicates government “hostility.”

The Court insultingly suggests that a person who wishes to make a secular statement should 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.” The court fails to note that neither the form nor the statute provide the taxpayer with a way to “opt to affirm.” Ending a so-called “affirmation” with the words “So help me God” renders an affirmation absolutely meaningless.

This Court decision is doublespeak! Carving out an exception for one Missouri citizen does not address the inequity of the wording and the statutory double standard.

On one matter we do agree with the Court. That is when it admits that the religious oath “is indeed an invitation to express a belief in God.”

The solution now rests with the Missouri Legislature, which should ensure that citizens in all its counties are given secular wording on tax assessment forms.

* * *

Take a look at the composition of the Missouri State Supreme Court, which voted unanimously to uphold the religious oath on the tax form. Four of the six (one seat is vacant) judges were appointed by John Ashcroft when he was governor! Ashcroft-appointed justices are: John C. Holstein, Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr., William Ray Price Jr., and Duane Benton.

Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr. is the cousin of Rush, and was appointed by Ashcroft in 1992. He received a BA from Southern Methodist University, and has served on the board of the Centenary United Methodist Church, and the Southern Methodist University Law Alumni Association.

Judge Duane Benton‘s biography notes: “A deacon and trustee of the First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, he is former counsel to the Missouri Baptist Convention.” Ashcroft appointed him in 1991.

Judge John C. Holstein describes himself as “a member of the Second Baptist Church in Springfield.” He served on the Board of Trustees of Southwest Baptist College, and was appointed to the Supreme Court by Ashcroft in 1989.

Judge Ray Price Jr., Chief Justice, was also appointed to the state Supreme Court by Ashcroft in 1992. He received a B.A. from the University of Iowa in religion, 1974, also attending Yale University Divinity School for one year. His biography notes: “He is a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).”

Judge Michael A. Wolff, who wrote the decision against FFRF and Robert Oliver, describes himself as educated in Catholic grade schools and at a Catholic high school.

Only Judge Ronnie L. White did not advertise his religious beliefs in a current Missouri government reference. He was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1995 by Governor Mel Carnahan.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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