1st Circuit affirms 'so help me God' in citizenship oath
A federal appeals court has rejected a French atheist's effort to impose her beliefs on the oath of American citizenship.
Olga Paule Perrier-Bilbo sued to remove "so help me God" from the oath after U.S. officials offered her two options: join others in the oath but don't say the words, or have a private ceremony.
She refused both, instead insisting that the oath be changed for everyone.
Her complaint stated: "By placing a religious statement (to which plaintiff does not adhere) into the oath of naturalization, and the forcing plaintiff to use an alternative oath (so that she must feel less than a new citizen), defendants substantially burden plaintiff in her exercise of religion."
The First Circuit Court of Appeals responded: "Although the Due Process Clause may protect her ability to 'worship God according to the dictates of [her] own conscience,' ... the government has not prevented Perrier-Bilbo from expressing her atheistic religious beliefs. Nor can Perrier-Bilbo claim that the regulation prescribing the oath prohibits her from having a public ceremony during which she does not have to say the phrase 'so help me God.'
"Rather, the regulations enable her to alter the oath, and the government has given her alternatives to accommodate her beliefs so that she is comfortable during her ceremony and is able to naturalize."
Pointedly, the court noted, her complaint "seems to be that the government will not change the oath for everyone attending the public ceremony so that no one utters the words to which Perrier-Bilbo objects."
"Perrier-Bilbo certainly does not have a protected liberty interest in that."
The government repeatedly told her she "did not have to say anything" to which she objected. Officials explained they could offer accommodations, but they could not change the oath.
The appeals court noted religious phrases have passed Establishment Clause muster because the Constitution does not require a "complete separation of church and state."
"While Perrier-Bilbo acknowledges that she does not have to utter the words 'so help me God,' she still finds that her religious beliefs are disrespected if she participates in a ceremony in which others recite the phrase," the court said. "We do not second-guess the sincerity of Perrier-Bilbo's beliefs or her feeling of distress upon hearing the phrase at issue. But even if the phrase offends her, offense 'does not equate to coercion' and the Free Exercise Clause does not entitle her to a change in the oath's language as it pertains to others."
The American Center for Law and Justice said it "appears that, while she doesn’t want to be burdened by the beliefs of others, Perrier-Bilbo’s preferred solution would be to have her own beliefs forced on everyone else."
The First Amendment, ACLJ said, "affords atheists complete freedom to disbelieve, but the phrase 'so help me God' does not actually force new citizens to adopt a religion or believe anything."