Atheist Sues Government for Having “So Help Me God” in Citizenship Oath

The official Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America — the oath you take when you’re a new citizen — ends with the words “so help me God.”

There is a modified version of the oath available for anyone who doesn’t want to say those words, but the default includes the phrase.

For that reason, 48-year-old Olga Paule Perrier-Bilbo has filed a federal lawsuit against the United States, including Congress and the director of the office of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Perrier-Bilbo, who is a French citizen, currently lives in Massachusetts but wants to become a U.S. citizen. Her application has been approved and the oath is the only thing standing in her way. Because she’s an atheist, though, she says she “cannot in good conscience include those words in her oath.”

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So why not take the modified version? Because it’s modified. It’s not the same thing everyone else takes. And that makes her a second class citizen before she’s ever a true citizen at all.

This is unfair, demeaning and improper. Plaintiff is unwilling to start her new life as an American citizen in some second-class status solely because she chooses to follow her religious precepts. Under the principles of equal protection, she demands the right to experience the elation, the pride, the sense of camaraderie, and the sense of belonging, which comes from joining her fellow new citizens as an equal participant in the naturalization oath ceremony.

Her argument isn’t all that outlandish. Why is a reference to God part of the basic package when it comes to obtaining citizenship? Why isn’t the religious oath the one you have to specially request?

The lawsuit may seem like a long shot… but Perrier-Bilbo’s lawyer is no stranger to that.

It’s Michael Newdow, the atheist who famously tried to remove “Under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance (on behalf of his child) and is currently working to remove “In God We Trust” from our currency.

While there’s a logic to their argument in this citizenship case, the government will likely say this is not an establishment of religion (because of the modification) and that the reference to God is ceremonial at best. They could also say the oath doesn’t substantially burden anyone regardless of their religious or non-religious beliefs.

That may not stop Newdow, though. His M.O. for several years has been to file federal lawsuits that almost always lose at the district level, file an appeal, and hope that the random assignment of three judges to his case works out in his favor as it did with the Pledge of Allegiance case. After winning a 2-1 decision in the Ninth Circuit, the case went in front of the Supreme Court, where it was eventually tossed out on a technicality. With the currency cases, he’s making his way through the circuits, one by one, until he runs out of options.

But that’s a lot of work for a case that church/state separation groups have stayed away from for good reason. It doesn’t seem like one that’s bound to win.

I reached out to Newdow for comment yesterday but haven’t heard back at the time of this writing.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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