Filthy, germ-infested “so help me god” bibles

Those bibles in our court rooms are literally disgusting. Think of the filth exposed when objects / hands are held up to ultra-violet lights. For this reason, I never read magazines at the doctor’s office. Everybody touches them!

Bibles are gross

bible-is-the-most-disgusting-thing-youll-face-in-court

(click to embiggen)

I received a letter from an atheist who recently gave sworn testimony. She was shocked to hear the bailiff’s extra dose of religion as she was sworn in. She not only had to wash her hands, she probably needed a shower after this experience.

I swear…

Hello! From all of my atheist blogs, you seem like the one of the most knowledgeable and able to give pertinent advice about a situation I was just in. I had 2 separate court cases last month, both falling in the same week. Divorce, and then a work-related case.

On the first day, the bailiff did the oath like this: “Do you swear or affirm… truth stuff… giving the same answers you’d give to god on the last glorious day?”

Crazy right? I was kinda speechless at the extra dose of religion she’d put in the place of “so help you god”.

So, on later that week, knowing that I was going to be in front of 3 sets of lawyers and a jury, I specifically mentioned it to my attorney. She said that the effusive god-ness wouldn’t happen. I told her my problem wasn’t the extra, it was the basic god thing too. I said I’m an atheist, and she should talk to whoever in the court, I would need the god switched out for “under penalty of perjury” or something. I’ll give you one guess as to the oath I got.

I’m incredibly pissed at her, and disappointed in myself for not correcting the bailiff instead of just meekly saying “I do”. I don’t know I’d there’s anything I can do retrospectively, but there has to be a way to fight for future cases. I KNOW I’m not the only atheist in my little part of the world, and no one should have to make the choice between going along with Christian privilege or damaging their credibility in front of the jury (because we are the most distrusted group) by making a scene about the oath.

Thank you for any advice/help you can offer!

NAME WITHHELD

Excellent question. Yes this is a bit tricky in both situations. First of all, you do have the right to demand a secular oath, as you thought. I’m surprised your lawyer didn’t better inform you!

States will vary, but overall the advice seems to be similar. Typically you should inform the judge / bailiff ahead of time that you wish to affirm rather than swear.

1) Divorce

This is especially tricky if a custody battle is expected. Most stories are pretty bleak, and many atheists bite their tongues. Especially if divorcing a religious partner! Judges have been shown to treat atheists harshly in custody cases, simply because of their atheism.

If there are no children, then finances are a likely source of contention. This is a very serious concern for many. You are the only one who could decide, and I am not a lawyer.

That aside… if both parents are atheists, or if there are no children involved, and finances weren’t a deal-breaker… I’d have blasted the bailiff right then and there. I’ll get to HOW to do that in a bit.

2) Work-related

Financial concerns may very well be at play here too. What I’m not sure about your story is whether or not the court system IS your workplace. (E.G. You’re some sort of expert witness, or other paid consultant.)

If you are ‘simply’ involved in a case against an employer (or former employer), by speaking out, you may indeed risk ruffling the feathers of those that may be deciding your financial situation soon. It’s up to you where your priorities lay. If the case isn’t really about you, then I’d blast that bailiff without hesitating.

[UPDATE: she let me know the case wasn't really about her, and she is rightfully pissed at the lawyer.]

Conclusion:

There is an inherent level of risk that people accept as they request affirmation rather than religious tests for honesty. Some people may determine their own situation to be ‘too risky’. There is nothing wrong with that. Others may be in similar situations and opt for affirmation anyway.

Next time, you’ll be better prepared to make that assessment. It’s unfortunate that your lawyer dismissed your concerns without taking any action. It’s an entirely pedestrian process. Good on you for your instinctive attempt to handle the situation correctly.

If you expect to interact in court again, please record this bailiff’s actions. Send it to the FFRF, or AA, AU, or any similar organization. Shit- send it to me.

One way to do it.

I’ve also struggled with this oath in the military. An officer wouldn’t even take my testimony without a huge hassle.

Superior: “Do you, Justin Griffith… swear to tell the truth so help you god?”

Justin Griffith: “No. I don’t believe in god, sir.”

Superior: “In that case you don’t have to swear. Rather you can affirm. Would you like to affirm?”

JG: “Yes sir.”

Superior: “Do you, Justin Griffith… affirm that your statements are true so help you god?”

JG: “No. I don’t believe in god, sir.”

Superior: “We have to get through this, Sergeant Griffith.”

JG: “Well, sir – I think you should leave off that bit at the end, then.”

Superior: “That’s not an option that I’m aware of. I think we should just get it over with.”

I nodded, and looked him directly in the eye:

Superior: “Do you, Justin Griffith… affirm that your statements are tru-”

JG: “YES SIR!” (interjecting at exactly the right moment).

This caught him off guard. He let out a nervous smile and then gave up with the ‘so help me god’. I gave my testimony, and deployed the next week.

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  • http://tuibguy.com Mike Haubrich

    That. Was. Sweet! I love how you cut him off at just the right time, Sarge.

  • grignon

    If an atheist swears on the bible, hasn’t he already impeached his own testimony by lying?

    “You can’t charge me with perjury! I had my meta-physical fingers crossed.”

  • http://www.morethanmen.org/ Mark

    Huh. I wonder what the result would be from an atheist bailiff who gave exclusively secular oaths?

    • Justin Griffith

      “EXCUSE ME, I don’t give a shit about perjury. I need to make a pinky promise with Jesus or else I will lie about everything. You’re lucky I even told you the truth about that. Also, you dropped your pocket… PSYCH! Made you look (cuz Jesus wasn’t watching).”

    • Makoto

      Well, if you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and leave off the part about god, would you be willing to lie? Is it only if you put your hand on the bible and swear with god in the list that you’re somehow more honest?

  • Lady Godfrey

    Recently in my divorce trial in in Oregon, there was no Bible, and the judge asked, “do you promise to tell the truth, whole truth, nothing but the truth, under penalty of perjury?” It didn’t seem to keep my newly-Xian, soon-to-be X from lying his ass off. Maybe he needed a Bible to keep him honest.

  • Kim

    The mind boggles…

    Seriously what exactly does the guy think the difference between “swearing” and “affirming” is if he leaves the god part in? Why is “affirm” supposed to be preferable to an atheist? What is so complicated about just not saying “so help you god”?

  • http://www.facebook.com/ZenoFerox Zeno

    Another way to do it

    If some asshole bailiff comes at you with “Do you solemnly swear or affirm that you will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God, giving the same answers you’d give to God on the last glorious day?”, I’d suggest responding with “I solemnly affirm that I will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, under pains and penalties of perjury.” In brief, don’t let yourself get boxed into having to respond “I do” to some formula of the bailiff’s own devising. If the bailiff is a big enough jerk to try again, I’d say to the judge, “Your honor, I have already affirmed.” And I’d probably refrain from adding, “So would you please call off this prick?” Not sure, though.

  • jaxkayaker

    You suggest recording the bailiff. You might want to clarify what you mean. Laws likely vary by state, but some individuals have been charged with wiretapping for attempting to record the audio of their own court hearing. Aren’t the oaths transcribed by the court recorder? There’s an official record right there.

    • Lady Godfrey

      I was able to buy a copy of the audio recording of not only our divorce proceedings, but his trashy girlfriend’s trial as well. It was fun to hear how stupid she is.

  • Jeremy Shaffer

    The one and only time I had to take an oath in court, which was a rather informal probate hearing, the judge simply did the whole “do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you god?” (with hand raised). In response I rose my hand and replied “I affirm that my testimony is accurate to the best of my knowledge under the penalty of perjury.” No one seemed to want to make a case of it and this was in Alabama.

    Similar to Lady Godfrey’s example above, the other person involved had no qualms about swearing truth to god while proceeding to lie their freaking asses off.

  • stonyground

    Considering the number of lies that are in the Bible, it seems strange to me that tradition suggests that it is a good idea to put your hand on it while making a promise not to lie yourself.

    I find lying incredibly difficult. I’m not sure if this is because I was brought up to tell the truth, because it is part of my nature, or because of my work in mechanical engineering.

    The thing about building or repairing machinery is that if you realise that you have screwed up, no matter how inconvenient or embarrassing it will be, you have to come clean, admit it, and then take the thing apart again and re-do the job properly. If you don’t, the machine will definitely fall to pieces at the most inconvenient time and you will be exposed as the incompetent idiot that you refused to admit to being in the first place. I find it impossible not to see this as a metaphor for the rest of life.

    In the UK requesting to take a secular oath is no big deal. I do wonder though, if my stating that I almost never lie and find it really difficult to do so would count for anything.

  • Gregory in Seattle

    I’m a notary public: taking oaths is part of what I do. I’ve looked at Washington law, and every mandated oath is civil, with no mention of scripture or deity. The person making the oath may request such things, but the person taking the oath cannot legally require them. A lawyer friend (himself an atheist) once told me that it does occasionally happen where a judge or bailiff will demand a religion oath: they tend to get fired or disbarred very quickly in this state.

    • http://www.etsy.com/shop/CatsPJsCreations?ref=seller_info Amy near Seattle

      Yay for Washington! We’re an awfully blue state, so I sort of expected that. It is nice to know I would probably never have to go through the hassle of asking for affirmation.

  • Chris Ho-Stuart

    Justin, I love your blog.

    I love the way you communicate by telling stories.

    I love the insight into the work you are supporting and doing. Religion entangled with the military is something I’d like to see get a lot more recognition; it strikes me as a major issue undermining your national security and safety.

    I love the way you so often illustrate principles of effective non-violent activism. I love the irony of that coming from a serving soldier!

    Kudos, man!

  • alanuk

    It is of course ironic that you are asked to swear an oath on a book that specifically forbids doing so.

    Some Christians object to swearing such an oath.

    I seem to remember John Wesley speaking on this and making an exception in the case being required to swear an oath in court.

    Of course certain Christians refused to remove their hats in court. As these are the sort of people we chased out of our country, I would presume that their descendents are making trouble in yours.

  • http://quinesqueue.blogspot.com Quine

    I do work as an expert witness, and have to deal with this problem depending on the State where the case is heard. Thanks to Federal Evidence Rule 603, they have to take an affirmation in place of an oath, but you need to be preemptive in order to avoid a problem in front of the Jury, or on record in a deposition.

    The way to do this is to see the Court Clerk before the trial, or recorder before the start of a deposition. Tell that person that you want the “non-religious affirmation” (and no Bible if you see one in the room). Those folks usually know what that means and you will have no problem, and not be seen as spiting on the Bible by the Jury. I did have one deposition recorder go through the oath language in a State where I was not expecting any problem, only to get to the very end and be hit with the “sohelpmegod.” I did not answer “Yes.” but instead told her that I wanted the non-religious affirmation. She looked at me in puzzlement and asked “what is that?” so I told her it was exactly the same but without the deity invocation at the end. The lawyers present, just keep quiet, so she read it, again, and did leave the end off, and I agreed.

    Always get it worked out, ahead of when it is in front of everyone.

  • Rick

    In NC, bailiffs don’t administer the oath, but the assistant clerk working in the court room does (sometimes the judge will if he or she sees that the clerk is busy). In NC, we have a pretty sizable population of Jehovah Witnesses. I mention this because these folks will not swear to god, so they affirm. Since the clerks know this fact, if testifying atheists wished to affirm, they wouldn’t be giving themselves away as atheists, so as to negatively affect the hearing or trial. The clerks have absolutely no problem affirming a person rather than swearing them in.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002875298009 brettsaunders

    This one of those things that really needs to just be done away with. The whole thing is basically “confirm that you’re god-fearing so we can trust your testimony”. There is no reason it needs to be done (that’s why perjury exists) and obvious reasons why the practice is important to remove.

    One thing I would like to say is that it’s more than just trials where your livelihood or children are a stake were you should opt out of the swearing in, it’s anything where you care about the outcome of the trial, whether you’re part of the proceedings or just a witness. Asking the court to give you a different oath is as good as telling the judge, and depending on the professionalism of the court, the jury, that you’re an atheist. And depending on the judge and jury, that could be enough to make your testimony suspect or even worthless to them. This is a system, especially in jury trials, where the personal opinions of people are proven to be more important than the facts quite often, and standing up for your right to not participate in a blatantly religious ritual is generally going to lower their opinions. Honestly, I’m surprised I don’t see this issue being fought more in separation of church and state arguments. It’s far more dangerous that commandment plaques in front of courthouses (though symptomatic of the same problem).


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