Atheists: Remove 'God' from Inaugural Oath

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WASHINGTON - A collection of atheists, non-theists and secularists are trying to get God knocked out of the upcoming inauguration.

They'll argue in a Washington federal district court Thursday that a judge should stop Chief Justice John Roberts from tagging the words "so help me God" onto the oath of office he'll administer to President-elect Barack Obama next Tuesday.

Thirty-nine non-theist groups and individuals are joining the lawsuit with atheist gadfly Michael Newdow, best-known for his suing to get "under God" thrown out of the Pledge of Allegiance.

'God' References Unconstitutional

Non-theists like Lori Lipman Brown, director of the Secular Coalition for America, argue that if Roberts adds "so help me God" to the oath, he'll be going beyond the U.S. Constitution.

"The oath of office is specified in the U.S. Constitution, in Article One, Section Two," Brown told CBN News. "As the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Roberts ought to be saying those words that the constitution specifies shall be given, rather than adding his own additional part that makes it a religious oath, which does not include all Americans."

Alliance Defense Fund: Atheists' Suit Groundless

The suit also asks the judge to ban prayers that such religious leaders as Rick Warren plan to give during the inauguration. Jordan Lorence and his Alliance Defense Fund organization fight for religious rights in court. Lorence told CBN News he thinks Newdow's suit is groundless.

"He hasn't really shown any violation of his constitutional rights," Lorence said. "He's saying 'I want to come with the millions of people to the inauguration and I'm going to be offended if Rick Warren or Joseph Lowery pray or the chief justice says so help me God.'

"Government leaders say all sorts of things that offend people and nobody has the right to go into court and to ask the judge to stuff a rag in their mouth and silence them," Lorence argued.

What History Shows

Many Americans believe George Washington added the words "so help me God" when he first took the oath of office, so they think use of the phrase goes all the way back to the first inauguration in 1789. But Brown said there's no proof for that.

She contended, "Actually, it was added in 1881 by Chester Arthur. And in addition to the fact that it wasn't added until the late 1800s, it was added by the President. Certainly the chief justice of the Supreme Court shouldn't be adding anything to what the constitution says he should swear in the new President with."

Still, Lorence pointed out that prayers at government events and invoking God in public oaths have a long, rich history in America.

About the oaths, Lorence said, "This has been common for hundreds of years, even before in England, as a way of affirming that the person was indeed serious about doing what he was promising to do, because he was swearing before God."

But Brown believes Newdow and his allies in the lawsuit might win their case because the Constitution is so exact.

"The constitution clearly gives exact language for the swearing-in, and as the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, it should be clear that you don't want a government endorsement of religion by adding something religious to an oath that the constitution gives exact language on, which is neutral on religion," she said.

An Atheist Victory 'Tragic' for America

Lorence couldn't disagree more and stated a Newdow win would be tragic for America.

"If a judge were to agree with Michael Newdow that he has a right to basically expunge any Christian references from the public scene, it would be a horrendous shift in thinking about the establishment clause," Lorence predicted. "That instead of the government not forcing people to believe certain ways, it would mean that there's a right for the village atheist to silence everybody from saying anything about God in public.

"It would marginalize Christians and other believers," he continued. "It would be totally upside-down and opposite of what the founding fathers intended."

Newdow says he doesn't really expect to win in the D.C. federal court Thursday, but to eventually succeed later through appeals. So if he fails to knock God out of this inauguration, he at least hopes to kick the Almighty out of all the future ones.

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Paul Strand

Paul Strand

CBN News Sr. Washington Correspondent

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