When I think of the petition “So help me God,” I am reminded of the phrases:
- “God helps those who help themselves.”
- “God helps those who cannot help themselves.”
- “God help those who get caught helping themselves.”
Prior to the inauguration of President Obama, an atheist filed a lawsuit to prevent Chief Justice Roberts from reciting “So help me God” while administering the presidential oath.
The lawsuit argued that only the words specified in the Constitution were allowed, and that to add a reference to God violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The plaintiff admitted that the President has a right to add a personal prayer or petition, but the Chief Justice cannot. Justice Roberts replied that his “prompting” of the phrase was “after” the oath, and not part of the oath, and the courts rejected the case.
George Washington is credited with starting the tradition in 1789 by adding these four words to his oath of office. “The oath was read slowly and distinctly, Washington at the same time laying his hand on the open Bible. When it was concluded, he replied solemnly, ‘I swear—so help me God!’” (George Washington: A Biography,” Washington Irvine (1855))
Although not mandated, each president has followed Washington’s precedent by proclaiming, “So help me God.”
The Article 2 of the Constitution provides: “Before he enters the Execution of his Office, [the President] shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:—”I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
The First Congress prescribed the phrase “So help me God” in oaths under the Judiciary Act of 1789 for U.S. judges and other officers. The phrase was mandated even earlier under state constitutions as well as by the Second Continental Congress in 1776. (See: 28 U.S.C. 453..)
“So help me God,” is also used for swearing witnesses among the states.
“You do solemnly state [formerly swear or affirm] that the testimony you may give in the case now pending before this court shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” (California witness oath)
Recognizing that we are “One nation under God,” and “In God We Trust,” “So help me God” is an integral and inspiring part of the American tradition.
Of course, the Constitution requires that “reasonable accommodation” be made for those who have religious objections to “swearing,” or using the name of God in their oaths. Administers of the oath use “affirm” or “state” instead of “swear,” and “under the pains and penalties of perjury,” instead of “So help me God.” As a practical matter, in thirty years on the bench, I have had just one person object to “swear” and no one object to “So help you God.”
(“Oath of office of the President of the United States,” “So help me God,” Wikipedia; The Judiciary Act of 1789, Chapter 20, Section 7, 1 Stat. 73. “A quick history of the presidential oath,” Holly Munson, National Constitution Center, Jul. 12, 2011, constitutioncenter.org; “Where Doe the Oath of Office Come From,” Marvin Pinkert, Dir. National Archives Experience, NPR Interview, Jan. 14, 2009; “George Washington: A Biography,” Washington Irvine (1855))
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