The oath of office that presidents take on Inauguration Day is right there in the U.S. Constitution -- at the end of Article II, Section 1. Take a look, and you will see that the oath does not include the words "so help me God" at the end, though presidents and the chief justices who swear them in have apparently added the words in every inauguration since 1933. Some historians say George Washington used the same words in the first inaugural, but others dispute that, and in any case the practice did not become common until the inaugurations of Franklin Roosevelt.
California atheist Michael Newdow -- famed for challenging the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance -- has gone to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking an injunction to prevent Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., as well as the congressional sponsors of the Jan. 20 inaugural and several other defendants, from inserting the words "so help me God" into the oath.
According to the complaint the plaintiffs "have no objection at this time" if President-elect Barack Obama chooses to add the words himself. "The president, like all other individuals, has Free Exercise rights, which might permit such an alteration." But, the complaint adds, "no such free exercise rights come into play on the part of the individual administering the oath to the President."
In other words, it would be okay if Obama adds the phrase on his own. But if Roberts "prompts" Obama to recite the offending phrase by offering the words himself, that would amount to a "state actor" endorsing religion, Newdow asserts. And that would violate the First Amendment's establishment clause, as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, according to Newdow.
The complaint also states, "It is well known that defendant Roberts is a Catholic" and adds that Rev. Rick Warren, whom Obama has chosen for the invocation, has repeatedly said he would never vote for an atheist. Inclusion of an invocation and a benediction in the program, Newdow adds, is "completely exclusionary, showing absolute disrespect to plaintiffs and others of similar religious views."
This article first appeared on The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times.