I Swear...
March 31, 2004 11:17 AM   Subscribe

Atheists and other non-Christians: Ever have to take an oath in a court of law? How did you deal with it? [More Inside]

I was subpoenaed to be a witness in an assault and battery case. At some point I assume they'll ask me to place my hand on a bible and swear "the truth, the whole truth, etc..." While I could very easily suck it up and just do it, to me it would be making the statement that I agree to the power That Book has. It would be like telling a Jew to "just eat the damn bacon and shut up."

I have no interest in scoring a point for the home team. I'm not out to make a big statement about Atheism or Christianity or anything like that. I also don't want to influence the opinion of anyone in the courtroom, which I don't think is very far fetched thing to be concerned with in this very Christian area I live in. "How can this witness be credible, he doesn't even believe in God?" Not that I'm the key witness, in fact I'm a pretty minor part of the case, but I will be asked to testify.

I'm told I can choose to "affirm" rather than swear on a bible, but how do I go about doing this? Can I do it quietly? Can I request it before I get up on the witness stand so that they don't make a big stink about it? Has anyone ever done this? Google doesn't turn up much advice as to how to go about it, just a bunch of atheist rants.

Practical advice only, please. I don't want this thread to turn into an Atheists vs. Christians deathmatch.
posted by bondcliff to Law & Government (29 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
In many cases, the rote question they ask now is "do you swear or affirm..." but if you want to be sure, you might check beforehand. I wouldn't be surprised if a courthouse receptionist could answer the question, or at least tell you who to talk to.
posted by adamrice at 11:30 AM on March 31, 2004

to me it would be making the statement that I agree to the power That Book has.

I'll tell the truth because I promised to. If they want me to put my hand on That Book or say "so help me God" when I make the promise, well, fine, whatever floats their boat, it makes no difference to me. Swearing on a Bibles is the same as swearing on a phone book, and saying "so help me God" is equivalent to saying "so help me Mickey Mouse."

It's just a book; it won't hurt you to touch it.
posted by kindall at 11:40 AM on March 31, 2004

Second that: talk to those who administer the court beforehand. I've done so for making arrangements to fight a ticket or make a small claims court claim and generally found them helpful, even if I didn't always get what I wanted. Hopefully things would be the same in a criminal context.

I might add that even as a believer, I'd see the integrity you're striving to maintain would be a point for your trustworthiness, not against (and I find the bacon analogy apt). But since not everyone might feel the same way, I think you're probably wise to try and defuse the situation beforehand.
posted by namespan at 11:41 AM on March 31, 2004

Response by poster: Kindall, it's not the book I'm worried about touching. It's standing up in front of a courtroom and making a public statement that it is the Fear Of God that will force me to tell the truth. It's just a cracker, sure, but I wont take communion and say "I believe" (Amen) when told it is the body of Jesus.

Although now I'm wondering what would happen if I did swear to Mickey Mouse.
posted by bondcliff at 11:47 AM on March 31, 2004

The "swear or affirm" wording is thought to come from the Quakers since many Quakers object to swearing oaths ["Their belief is that one should tell the truth at all times. Taking an oath implies that there are two types of truthfulness: one for ordinary life and another for special occasions."]. People from other religions often swear oaths on their own holy books. You should be able to work this out ahead of time with the courthouse staff. If not, you can tell the judge as soon as you get to the witness stand that you would prefer to affirm instead of swearing on a Bible. Positive Atheism magazine does have a little bit of back-n-forth on how to practically handle this issue.
posted by jessamyn at 11:53 AM on March 31, 2004

Good for you, bondcliff. Let us know how it works out!
posted by mkultra at 11:55 AM on March 31, 2004

The Quaker belief likely comes from the Bible itself:

"Matthew 5:37 - But I say unto you, Swear not at all...But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.
James 5:12 - But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation."

So if you want to be puckish (without resorting to the Mouse), you could even make a Christian case of it.

This might, however, sortof strain a larger point for you. So I agree with the other advice: talk to the court beforehand and see what you can arrange.
posted by weston at 12:25 PM on March 31, 2004 [1 favorite]

Matthew 5:33-37 (KJV)
33 Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: 34 But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: 35 Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. 36 Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. 37 But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.

I have never understood where swearing on the Bible cam from, since it's such a direct contradiction of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount.
posted by blueshammer at 12:29 PM on March 31, 2004 [1 favorite]

I can't remember exactly where you are, but I recently served on a jury here in Oregon, and it was all "swear or affirm", no books involved. I was as concerned as you, and relieved at the outcome.
posted by frykitty at 12:33 PM on March 31, 2004

Response by poster: Frykitty, I'm in the Boston area. We're about as liberal as you guys are in a lot of cases but I think the Christian influence is greater here. I have a feeling it will be No Big Deal, but I still want to go in prepared.

It bugs me that I even have to be concerned in the first place.
posted by bondcliff at 12:41 PM on March 31, 2004

Given that passage from Matthew, this practice seems almost devilish in design. An ironic statement on the carelessness most Christians seem to apply to their faith: anyone who would actually agree to swear on a Bible is, by definition, someone who doesn't really care about practicing his faith fully (truthfully).

Anyway, the ten commandments et al have been banned from the courtrooms. This must surely mean they've also phased out the laying-on of hands.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:00 PM on March 31, 2004

My response would depend on the situation. If the occasion would better suit my purposes not to make waves, I would swear and blah blah blah (with my fingers crossed behind my back ;-P ).

However, if I have no real interest in the outcome or my purposes would be better served by making an immediate objection to placing my hand on 'such a loathsome object', you damn betcha I will.

This should be interesting at the end of April when my wife and I get the divorce, since she is even more militantly anti-christian than I am. ... and the court will be out in Podunk, Georgia!

mischief always
posted by mischief at 1:22 PM on March 31, 2004

Not sure what they have where you are (yeesh that's poor wording), but I'd ask for a copy of the Criminal Code or other such book of law if there was a necessity of swearing on an actual book.

I was in a courtroom when one guy made a big deal of not swearing on the Bible, and he basically just sounded like an ass. And I'm atheist. You're right, perception is important so I'd talk to the court clerk or other official before the proceedings start to see what's up, and do what you can to arrange it. Just remember they're people too. Some are nice and helpful, others complete asses. Hope you get the former, and deal with the latter the best you can.

Oh, and remember, it's not about you. Do what you have to, to let the proceedings flow. Nobody there will be interested in your beliefs unless you choose to make a point about it, and then they'll just hate you.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 1:22 PM on March 31, 2004

Not every court uses the bible. Some have you raise your right hand and "swear or affirm." In any case, you should have the lawyer you are a witness for arrange it beforehand. He or she will want to talk to the judge if it's a "bible court" so you don't look like a "heathen" to the jurors. Often, they amend the oath so subtly people do not even notice.

In U.S. District Court , the standard oath is amended to:
"You do affirm that all the testimony you are about to give in the case now before the court will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; this you do affirm under the pains and penalties of perjury?" They have a book that looks just like the court bible, but is blank. The "penalties of perjury" bit doesn't sound as foreboding as the wrath of a vengeful Almighty, but there is a good chance no one will really be paying that much attention.

It was Machiavelli who said that piety is what must most be faked to be respected. So another possibility is you could take the alternate oath and still put your hand on the Bible. It's a personal choice. Some atheists figure it's just a book of mythical history - so it is no big deal. Others, personally object to even the impression of swearing "on the bible."

The oath which is used is up to the individual judge. A few judges use the alternate oath all the time by default. Others - when faced with a witness that doesn't wish to swear to God, will have the alternate oath used for all witnesses in the trial, to avoid any chance one witness could be singled out.

It's an anachronism that needs to go, imho. It's already been established that the oath is symbolic - perjury is perjury no matter what the witness's faith. The USSC heard arguments in the Pledge of Allegiance case last week. I'd guess that if they eventually hold in favor of the challenge, we will start to see other religious vestiges such as the court swearing on the bible and the "before God" swearing in of government officials. unfortunately, it is currently a grey area.
posted by sixdifferentways at 1:42 PM on March 31, 2004

It's standing up in front of a courtroom and making a public statement that it is the Fear Of God that will force me to tell the truth.

Well, my philosophy is, if they think that, why go out of my way to correct them?
posted by kindall at 1:50 PM on March 31, 2004

I was recently sworn in as a jury member. Here in the UK they give you the option of choosing a theistic oath and a secular oath. I mentioned somewhere along the line, to the jury co-ordinator, maybe also to the court usher, that I wanted the non-theistic oath (though in the documents you're given before you turn up to serve, the choice is clearly pointed out) and I was given a bit of card with the oath to read out.

Speak to someone at the court, like an usher or someone, before you go into the court room. Generally these people are well aware of how bewildering and intimidating it can be to go into a courtroom, and will be very happy to help you with whatever you need to know about the proceedings.

It doubtless will be nothing of a problem, bondcliff.
posted by Blue Stone at 1:59 PM on March 31, 2004

In DC, IIRC, they just had us say either "swear" or "affirm" when we the jury repeated the oath as a group. They certainly couldn't (constitutionally) force you to swear by God.
posted by callmejay at 2:03 PM on March 31, 2004

I agree with sxidifferentways about discussing it with the lawyer who is calling you as a witness. The one time I had to be sworn in at court, I did this, and he sorted it all out for me. It wasn't at all that I was upset about touching the Bible and a lot of people didn't see what the big deal was for me (which makes me wonder about their truthfulness in general is swearing an oath on an ideal you don't believe in is no big deal), but that as a non-Christian who wanted to do the right thing, I felt like I was going to be taking a oath swearing not to lie, but lying while doing so. I wrangled with myself for days about it, and many friends just suggested that I grin and bear it, but it just kept giving me that bad feeling inside when I thought about saying "so help me God" when I didn't believe in that particular god. So I had to do something about it, thus discussing it with the lawyer. I was so glad I did so.
posted by Orb at 3:33 PM on March 31, 2004

I agree with all the advice to speak with the lawyer beforehand. Boston's a major city, heavy Catholic influence or no -- I can't imagine you're the first heathen to raise the issue. I understand where you're coming from -- if I had to testify, I'd of course be willing to state solemnly I was going to tell the truth, but I wouldn't be willing to bring a god I don't believe in into the proceedings.
posted by scody at 3:50 PM on March 31, 2004

so, if you have to swear to the court you're not going to perjure, why don't you have to swear to the court house security that you're not going to burn down the building? why don't you swear to a traffic cop each time you drive that you're not going to speed?
posted by badstone at 4:46 PM on March 31, 2004

Because lying (in and of itself) isn't a crime, whereas burning down buildings is.

The oath is there to remind you that you're in a special situation.
posted by dagnyscott at 5:03 PM on March 31, 2004

I'm an atheist. I've testified in both Federal and District Courts, as well as represented clients in both Conciliation and District Courts. In Minnesota, a bible is not used. When I've taken oaths, I simply say "yes" and know that I, personally am not saying yes to the "god" part.

I understand not wanting to make your beliefs an issue in a court proceeding. I agree that you may think about talking to the prosecutor or defense attorney when you arrive. Just say that you would like to "affirm" rather than "swear" and they'll take care of the rest for you.

On a side note, I was called as a witness in a huge federal case involving drug trafficking, prosecution, and gang activities. There were nine very intimidating defendants all sitting together with their attorneys at the defense tables. Plus, the defendants' family and friends were in the audience. I was more concerned with having to give my name and address in front of them than having to swear to god. I was really frightened.
posted by Juicylicious at 5:26 PM on March 31, 2004

Juicylicious: yikes, that would frighten me too. Was there no way you could state your name and address in a sidebar to the judge/court reporter/attorneys but not in open court? (Sorry for the off-topic question -- just curious, though.)
posted by scody at 5:33 PM on March 31, 2004

Having never had to testify in court before, I had no idea that I was going to have to give that information when I was sworn in. So there I was standing in the witness box with all the defendants, their lawyers, the prosecution team, judge, clerk, bailiffs, jury and audience watching me. I didn't have the guts to call the proceedings to a halt at that point. Knowing what I know now, I would have talked to the attorney that subpoenaed me before hand.
posted by Juicylicious at 5:45 PM on March 31, 2004

I personally (Atheist, technically Agnostic [scientific rigor and all]) don't think I'll ever reject swearing on the Bible. First, if anyone notices it might weaken my testimony. Second, I try never to directly (crassly, IMO) reject religion, even in practically harmless contexts, which is why Atheists are viewed as pompous and morally insidious (comitted to spreading their ideas etc.)
posted by abcde at 8:21 PM on March 31, 2004

Interesting. I see the assumption of being a Christian to be pompous and morally insidious, which is why I would entirely reject swearing on the bible.

No matter what your faith is, you surely feel intruded upon when some door-to-door evangelist for Yippee Religion Next comes a-knockin' on the door or hands you a leaflet at the airport.

That's what I feel when I'm handed a bible to swear upon, find a Gideon in the hotel room, can't hit the pub on a Sunday, and have to take Saturday off instead of Monday. Religion permeates everything. It's insidious.

As orb said, "I felt like I was going to be taking a oath swearing not to lie, but lying while doing so." This is exactly the feeling I get when I cave in to family political pressure and attend church with the in-laws. Mumbling the creed while rejecting it outright is just too corrupt for words. I wouldn't feel comfortable taking a religious oath in a Jewish, Voodoo, Hindu, or other religious act, either. And I bet you wouldn't, either.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:21 PM on March 31, 2004

Second, I try never to directly (crassly, IMO) reject religion

What's crass about wishing to be sworn in according to your religion (or lack thereof)?

I once went to church with my in-laws as well, and let's say it will never happen again. Luckily, my husband agrees with me.
posted by Orb at 10:58 PM on March 31, 2004

First, if anyone notices it might weaken my testimony.

Only if the person who notices it is indescribably stupid and incapable of understanding even the basic rules of testimony and argumentative logic. Sadly, this probably happens more than it should; it's similar to the logic that suggests you should read something into a defendant not testifying when the burden of proof lies somewhere else entirely.

Second, I try never to directly (crassly, IMO) reject religion, even in practically harmless contexts, which is why Atheists are viewed as pompous and morally insidious (comitted to spreading their ideas etc.)

"morally insidious" for not submitting to archaic terminology that references spiritual entities that are explicitly meant to be kept separate from government yet for some reason are accepted largely without question? I fail to see any logic behind that. Then again, I guess logic isn't part of the equation here (see, that was sort of pompous).
posted by The God Complex at 12:20 AM on April 1, 2004

Hey, fff, I'm atheist and close my business on Sunday. You might want to check as to why your company closes on Sunday.

I close mine because I only made two sales total in several months on sundays. For that I would prefer to sit at home and play X-Box, or try to get that damn GameCube to load backups properly. If that's because everyone else is sitting in church learning to be cannibals, that's fine with me. Whatever floats the customers' boat.

On that note, I sell satellite systems for people to watch religious and ethnic stations (such as those from countries where the government censors TV, such as Iran) from elsewhere which are illegal to broadcast untouched from my home country. How deliciously ironic, eh? Of course, being atheist, unlike other dealers, I get to sell Muslim, Catholic, and Christian systems all in one store. Whoopie!

I'd ask prior to being on the stand. If I got bad vibes, I'd just swear on the damn bible and be done with it. Who cares. You could be in Ontario and be forced to watch students indoctrinated by a provincially funded Catholic School System, while other religions people attempt to censor foreign news stations.
posted by shepd at 1:44 AM on April 1, 2004

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