Plaintiffs’ Refusal to Swear Under Oath

Court rules that lawsuit cannot be dismissed because of a plaintiff’s refusal to swear under oath.

Church Law and Tax 1992-03-01 Recent Developments

Freedom of Religion

Can a court dismiss a lawsuit because the plaintiff refuses, on religious grounds, to swear that her testimony would be truthful? No, said a federal appeals court. A woman brought a tax appeal before the Tax Court. However, she refused to “swear” or “affirm” under oath before testifying. Her objection to oaths and affirmations was based on two Biblical passages, Matthew 5:33-37, and James 5:12. The first passages says, in part, “But I say unto you, swear not at all … but let your communication be yea, yea, or nay, nay, for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” The second passage says, “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 you fall into condemnation.” The woman claimed that these passages prohibit both swearing of oaths and affirmations in a court of law. She did suggest to the trial judge that she simply be allowed to state that she would declare the facts to the best of her ability. The judge abruptly denied her request, commenting that “asking you to affirm that you will give true testimony does not violate any religious conviction that I have ever heard anybody had.” Because the woman was not permitted to testify without swearing an oath, her case was dismissed. She promptly appealed to a federal appeals court, which agreed that she could not be required to swear or affirm if doing so would violate her religious convictions. The court noted that the trial judge “erred not only in evaluating [the woman’s] religious belief, and concluding that it did not violate any ‘recognizable religious scruple,’ but also in conditioning her right to testify and present evidence on what she perceived as a violation of that belief.” The court concluded that a simple statement such as “I state that I will tell the truth in my testimony” would be sufficient, as would the woman’s own alternative, “I do hereby declare that the facts I am about to give are, to the best of my knowledge and belief, accurate, correct, and complete.” Ferguson v. Commissioner, 921 F.2d 588 (5th Cir. 1991).

See Also: The Present Meaning of the First Amendment Religion Clauses

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