Fact Check: Is God Being Taken Out of Witness Oaths?

Fact Check: Is God Being Taken Out of Witness Oaths?
Fact Check: Is God Being Taken Out of Witness Oaths?

The US legal system is based on English common law, and that has a strong Judeo-Christian foundation, so it’s always been accepted that when someone gives evidence in court they should invoke the name of God as a sign of their trustworthiness. Take away the solemn oath, “So help me God,” and the legal process loses some of its solidity, its gravity. This would be an unpopular move with most Americans – but is an influential House committee trying to actually do it?

Highlights

On January 29, 2019, Fox News reported that Democrats on an influential congressional committee, rapidly taking advantage of their new majority in the House, were already pushing to remove the words “So help you God” from the oath taken by witnesses appearing before the committee.

  • According to Fox, the House Committee on Natural Resources – now controlled by a Democrat majority – circulated a draft of proposed changes to their rules for hearing evidence.
  • The most significant change was to the oath witnesses are required to consent to before testifying to the Committee. The traditional “So help you God” was slated to be replaced by “Under penalty of law.”
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  • This news caused predictable alarm among conservatives. Nobody was proposing to change the oaths taken in courtrooms across America, just the one used by a single congressional committee. However, this is the thin end of the wedge – once it’s been done once, it’s much easier to do it again.
  • It isn’t a small wedge, either. The Committee on Natural Resources has a very broad remit. It influences policy on mining, forest reserves, land irrigation, Native American matters and much more. This is a powerful committee, and if it adopts a Godless oath it wouldn’t be long before others do the same. Courtrooms, inevitably, will be next.
  • It seems the Committee wasn’t ready to go public with this sort of change, though. The day after Fox ran the story, they reconvened and voted unanimously to go back to the traditional text.
  • It’s often argued that references to God in legal oaths are archaic, or disrespectful to non-Christians. However, there are already established ways to cope with this. Followers of other religions can give a modified oath sworn on their own holy book, and secular variants exist for atheists and other unbelievers. In trying to change their oath the Committee were trying to fix a problem that doesn’t actually exist – not an uncommon story in the federal government.
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