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Let's separate religion from our government rituals

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Joseph Richardson

Guest Commentator

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Let's separate religion from our government rituals

"If commissioners left religion out of their oaths, what a respectful, inclusive action that would be."

On Thursday, three Winter Garden commissioners — two re-elected, one newly elected — will take their oaths of office at the city commission meeting at City Hall.

Traditionally, commissioners have put their hands on a Bible and sworn to uphold the laws “so help me, God.” But neither the Bible nor the entreaty to a deity are essential, required parts of the ceremony. In a ritual that’s meant simply to usher officials into office to do the jobs they were elected to do, swearing to God, on a Bible — or any holy text — seems superfluous, like just so much political theatre. Has a hand on a Bible or an appeal to a god ever stopped politicians of any party from abusing their office, if they were so inclined?

Our government, ideally, should be neutral toward religion. To make a commissioner’s first act of office a religious pledge, seems, to many, a violation of the well-established legal principle of separation of state and church.

Religious freedom means two things. First, citizens are free to worship as their religion and conscience dictate. Second, the government neither endorses nor denigrates any religious viewpoint. As with all other rights, religious freedom is not unlimited and it is balanced with our other freedoms.

By adding the phrase “so help me, God” and using a Bible as a part of a government ceremony, our elected representatives endorse and elevate religion over non-religion and, nearly always, Christianity over other religions.

The subtle message it sends is that Christians and their oaths are better than non-Christians and their affirmations. But since our population is a melange of beliefs — and nonbelief — our government would honor our Constitution by removing religious endorsements from official government activities altogether. 

Consider this: an ever-growing group of Americans claim no religious affiliation — 23.1 percent, according to the 2018 General Social Survey, which puts them on a statistical par with evangelicals and Catholics. A Pew Research study recently found that Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion, set to surpass Christianity globally by 2060. Closer to home, 24 percent of Florida’s citizens are likewise unaffiliated while 5 percent are Jewish and another 2 percent ascribe to other faiths that are not Protestant nor Catholic, according to the Pew Religious Landscape Study

There is already strong secular language available for taking oaths: “I do solemnly affirm to support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Florida …”

If our commissioners left the religious verbiage and the Bible out of their oaths, what a respectful, inclusive action that would be, demonstrating that as government agents they do not favor any specific religion over any other, or over absence of religion.

Instead, let our commissioners place their hands upon the Constitution of the United States of America and the City Charter of Winter Garden. As they commit to faithfully, impartially and justly execute their duties, we will know that they respect the plurality of beliefs in our community and the dignity and freedoms of every citizen for whom they work.

Joseph Richardson is a member of VoxPopuli’s advisory board and the Central Florida Freethought Community’s management board. He’s been a Winter Garden resident for 15 years and was a candidate for District 1 City Commissioner in 2020.

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