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Candidate sues New Jersey over "So help me God" in oath for public office
James Tosone, a non-theist, is forced to sign an oath that says "So help me God" if he wants to run for office
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A New Jersey man is suing the state for making him sign a religious oath in order to run for office.
James Tosone is a Libertarian who has run for public office multiple times. He’s lost races for State Senate (2017 and 2021) and U.S. House (2018). He was always able to get on the ballot, though, because there was never any obstacle when filing the necessary paperwork.
Tosone is considering another run for U.S. House next year, but the paperwork is now a hindrance to his campaign. That’s because the NJ Secretary of State is requiring him to sign an “Oath of Allegiance” that reads as follows:
I, ________, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of New Jersey, and that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same and to the Governments established in the United States and in this State, under the authority of the people So help me God.
A year before the 2022 midterm elections, when Tosone was considering a similar run, he asked if he could sign that statement while crossing out “So help me God” because he doesn’t believe in one.
The state adamantly refused, with one official telling him he wasn’t allowed to modify the oath in any way. She suggested Tosone “reach out to your legislatures to see if they would be willing to introduce a bill that would change this”… which is really the least helpful bit of advice. He didn’t run for office that year.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to those state officials in May of 2022 letting them know this was an illegal move on their part. Both the U.S. and New Jersey Constitutions forbid a religious test for public office and “requiring someone who is running for elected office in New Jersey to profess to a god in which they do not believe would make a mockery out of the oath and the solemn promise to support the Constitution.” FFRF added that the oath taken by state lawmakers doesn’t include a religious reference. Neither do oaths for other New Jersey officials.
FFRF never received a response. Nor did they hear back when they sent a follow-up letter earlier this year. The oath still hasn’t changed.
That’s why Tosone is now suing the state with FFRF’s help. He wants to make sure non-religious candidates like himself aren’t forced to lie about their beliefs in order to run for office.
The secretary of state and the state of New Jersey are coercing a statement of belief in a monotheistic deity by requiring nontheists or those worshiping more than one deity to swear “so help me God” in order to run for public office, FFRF asserts. Not only is Tosone, as a nontheist, barred from running for public office under this policy, as are New Jersey citizens who have no religious affiliation (24 percent of the New Jersey population) are also affected, among others. Additionally, the secretary of state and the state of New Jersey are coercing Christians who belong to sects that eschew swearing oaths to a deity, such as some Mennonites or Quakers, to violate both their religions and their consciences in order to run for public office.
The lawsuit calls for a permanent injunction to prevent state officials from requiring candidates to swear “So help me God” and for the state to provide alternatives to those who request them.
Neither of those should be complicated asks because there’s no legal justification for leaving a religious phrase in the oath. Just about every time similar oaths get challenged, the plaintiffs win.
I should point out that “So help me God” is in the oath for U.S. citizenship, and the Supreme Court refused to hear a case to fix that, but even then, a woman who sued over the matter was told she could say a modified, godless version of the oath (even if the official one included the phrase). Tosone wasn’t even given that option.
This is ultimately what happens when religion is treated as a “default” setting. If an oath for office included a line about how God didn’t help anyone, Christians would be (rightly) furious. But because religious belief, and Christianity specifically, gets so much unearned respect in our society, oaths like these in New Jersey are considered harmless and universal.
It forces non-religious and non-monotheistic candidates to choose between beginning their candidacy with a lie or not running for office at all. The candidates, and eventually the voters, deserve better than that.
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