Government Officials and Religious Oaths

Officials may not coerce citizens into engaging in religious exercises.

Church Law and Tax 1997-05-01


Key point. Government officials are prohibited by the first amendment “nonestablishment of religion” clause to coerce citizens into making religious oaths or engaging in religious exercises.

A federal appeals court ruled that a federal prosecutor may have violated the constitutional rights of a child abuse suspect by agreeing to dismiss all charges against her if she swore to her innocence in a church with her hand on a Bible. The facts of this case are very unusual, but compelling. Prosecutors, as well as church officials, often agonize over child abuse allegations because of a lack of proof. The accused may offer a convincing denial of the charges, though some evidence of guilt exists. A prosecutor in New York came up with a novel idea-dismissing child abuse charges against a woman if she swore to her innocence in her church with her hand on a Bible. The woman’s attorney agreed to this unusual arrangement, and on the appointed day the woman, her attorney, and the prosecutor met in the woman’s Roman Catholic church for the ceremony. The prosecutor assured the woman that she did not have to go through with the ceremony, but that if she did, all charges against her would be dropped. The woman agreed to proceed, placed her hand on a Bible, and stated: “I swear on this Bible that I did not have any form of sexual contact with my son on any occasion, so help me God.” All charges against the woman were dropped later that day. A few months later, the woman sued the prosecutor, claiming that his offer constituted a “coerced religious practice” in violation of the first amendment’s nonestablishment of religion clause. A federal court appeals court refused to dismiss the case and allowed it to proceed to trial. In conclusion, while such a ceremony would be a permissible (though not foolproof) method for a church to use in determining guilt, it is not appropriate for government officials to do so. Doe v. Phillips, 81 F.3d 1204 (2nd Cir. 1996). [The Establishment Clause]

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