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

FFRF lawsuit ends voter religious test

Vol. 38 No. 04 May 2021

Citizens can now opt out of
‘so help me God’ on Alabama’s form 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has attained a huge constitutional victory for secular voters in Alabama.

FFRF sued the Alabama secretary of state last October on behalf of four Alabama citizens who encountered and objected to a religious test to register to vote.

Now that the state of Alabama has amended all its voter registration forms to allow citizens to opt out of the religious oath, both online and in printed forms, FFRF has voluntarily dismissed its federal lawsuit challenging the uniquely Alabamian mandatory religious voter registration oath.

“The Alabama secretary of state excludes Alabama citizens from being able to vote if they are unable to swear a religious oath,” stated the suit. “The secretary of state’s official policy is to hinder the registration of voters who are unable to swear ‘so help me God.’ This policy violates the rights of the plaintiffs and others under the First and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution.”

As part of a settlement, Alabama Secretary of State John H. Merrill has amended all of the voter registration forms to allow voters to avoid swearing a religious oath. The new “mail in” form provides a check box that says, “Optional: Because of a sincerely held belief, I decline to include the final four words of the oath above.”

Shortly after the suit was filed, the secretary of state began implementing other changes. In November, the office adopted a new administrative rule that allows voters to strike out “so help me God” and provided guidance to county registrars (who add voters to the 

rolls) saying that voters could cross out the language.

The lead plaintiff, Randall Cragun, an atheist, had sought to register to vote in Alabama since November 2019. However, voters submitting this registration form in Alabama had to sign the voter declaration, beginning “I solemnly swear or affirm” and concluding with “so help me God.” The director of elections informed Cragun: “There is no legal mechanism to register to vote in Alabama without signing the oath as it is stated.”

The state of Alabama has dramatically changed its posture, thanks to FFRF’s lawsuit.

FFRF’s plaintiffs Chris Nelson and Heather Coleman (who are married) were able to register using the new form in March. Both of their registrations were accepted by the Shelby County registrars. “We are glad that the state has — at least, begrudgingly — made some concessions to support state-church separation, and that freethinkers in Alabama will continue to push for these reforms,” they say.

The other plaintiffs have expressed their appreciation for no longer being forced to pose as religious in order to exercise such a basic right.

“Because of this suit, I will finally be able to register to vote in Alabama,” says Cragun. “It is disappointing that the state prevented me from voting in the 2020 elections, but I am looking forward to participating in the future, and I now have a better appreciation of the value my voice and other individual voices contribute to shaping the state.”

Adds co-plaintiff Robert Corker, “I am proud to have been a part of this effort to secularize voting in the state of Alabama. I relish more opportunities to foster inclusiveness for nonbelievers in this state.”

Cragun thanked FFRF for stepping in where others wouldn’t. 

“I am so grateful to FFRF for pursuing this case,” he said. “Before FFRF took on the case, I spent a few months contacting attorneys and made no progress. I became discouraged by the idea that the state could infringe on my rights without me having any hope of doing something about it. I have heard people accuse FFRF of coming in from out of state to interfere with local matters, and I think anyone who has taken that rhetoric seriously should know that FFRF is helping protect the rights of its members like me. I never thought that I had much power to protect my rights until FFRF helped give me a voice.”

FFRF is honored to play its part of securing voting access for all Alabama residents.

“The secretary of state was consciously discriminating against nonbelieving voters,” says FFRF Senior Litigation Counsel Patrick Elliott. “We obtained our goal of ensuring equal voting rights.”

The lawsuit had been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, Southern Division. Steven P. Gregory of the Birmingham-based Gregory Law Firm was serving as co-counsel. FFRF Senior Litigation Counsel Patrick Elliott and FFRF Associate Counsel Liz Cavell were also attorneys in the case. The defendant was Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill.

FFRF litigation to correct state/church entanglements is made possible thanks to kind donations designated to FFRF’s legal fund.