Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

FFRF to challenge religious voter test

Vol. 37 No. 08 October 2020
The late Roy Torcaso, an FFRF honorary director, won a unanimous Supreme Court decision in 1961 affirming the government may not impose a religious test.                                 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation plans to file a federal lawsuit by October to challenge a religious test to register to vote that is unique to the state of Alabama. Alabama is the only state in the country requiring voters to register on a form that mandates that they swear “so help me God.”

In all other states, voters are provided a completely secular registration form or are not required to submit an oath or affirmation at all. FFRF expects to file on behalf of at least one Alabama resident and possibly others who have encountered this religious test when trying to register to vote. The defendant will be Alabama Secretary of State John H. Merrill.

The primary complainant, an atheist, has sought to register to vote in Alabama since November 2019, using a mail-in form downloaded from the secretary of state’s website. The bottom of the voter declaration section warns, “Read and sign under penalty of perjury,” and adds: “If you falsely sign this statement, you can be convicted and imprisoned for up to five years.” Voters submitting this registration form in Alabama must sign the voter declaration, beginning “I solemnly swear or affirm,” and concluding with “so help me God.”

The complainant contacted the secretary of state’s office to ask about the process to register to vote without swearing an oath reading, “so help me God.” The following day, the director of elections at that office informed the complainant that there was no legal mechanism for him to register to vote: “If you cross out a portion, the board of registrars in your county will reject the application and ask you to re-submit.”

The secretary of state maintains that the registration forms are “prescribed by statute” and “that any changes would require legislative action.” FFRF’s lawsuit will point out that the secretary of state has the authority to create and amend voter registration forms.

Government officials routinely allow attorneys, jurors, witnesses and many others who must take an oath to make a secular affirmation instead when they are unable to swear “so help me God” as a matter of conscience.

FFRF Attorney Chris Line previously sent a letter to the secretary of state, noting that any requirement for religious oaths violates the First Amendment of the Constitution, which bars religious tests. In Torcaso v. Watkins, the Supreme Court held that neither a state nor the federal government may force a person to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. “The prohibition on mandatory religious oaths is a well-settled issue,” Line added.

“The secretary of state has willfully excluded nontheist citizens from registering to vote,” says FFRF Senior Litigation Counsel Patrick Elliott, “and is coercing a statement of belief in a monotheistic god by requiring nontheists to swear a religious oath.”