(The Center Square) — A New Jersey man considering a run for the U.S. House of Representatives has filed a federal lawsuit asking the court to nullify a state law requiring political candidates to take a religious oath to qualify for the ballot.
The lawsuit, filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation on behalf of Jason Tosone, argues that by not allowing those running for office to complete the candidate petition without swearing “so help me God,” the Secretary of State and Division of Elections is violating their constitutional rights.
“The New Jersey Secretary of State is violating basic First Amendment freedoms by unconstitutionally compelling New Jersey citizens who want to run for public office to swear “so help me God” in violation of their conscience — or else forgo their constitutional right as citizens to seek public office,” his lawyer, Paul Grosswald, wrote in the 17-page complaint.
In the complaint, he argues that the requirement “forces Christians who belong to sects that eschew swearing oaths to a deity, such as some Mennonites or Quakers, to violate both their religious and consciences in order to run for public office.”
Grosswald points out that many states, including New Jersey, routinely allow attorneys, jurors, witnesses, and others to make secular affirmations “when they are unable to swear ‘so help me God’ as a matter of conscience.”
The lawsuit asks a judge for a declaratory judgment that the Secretary of State “has violated, and is continuing to violate, the United States Constitution by promulgating candidate petition forms that require all candidates to swear “so help me God” without the option of a secular affirmation.”
Secular groups say the phrase “so help me, God” violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on government establishment of religion and say removing it from official proceedings is long overdue.
“It’s an egregious violation of freedom of conscience — as well as our Constitution — to compel nontheists to take a religious oath,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, the foundation’s co-president, said in a statement. “This legal challenge seeks to put an end to this discriminatory and anachronistic practice.”
Conservative groups who oppose the changes argue that removing “God” from official proceedings is the latest example of secular efforts to diminish the influence of religion in society.
On a federal level, while many oaths to serve in government include the phrase “so help me, God,” others — most notably the presidential oath of office — do not require it.
Still, President Donald Trump, a Republican, and President Joe Biden, a Democrat, used the phrase when taking the oath, a tradition some historians trace to President Abraham Lincoln in 1861.
The military has for years allowed enlisted service members and officers to omit the phrase in appointment oaths or to use alternate language.
In Congress, House Democrats pushed several years ago to remove “God” from the oath taken by witnesses addressing committees.
Republican leaders reacted with dismay, with some pundits suggesting it was a sign of the Democratic Party’s leftward shift. The changes were later abandoned.