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To whose god are you swearing?

Thursday, October 25, 2007 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:50 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 4, 2009
David Rosman writes a weekly opinion column for the Missourian.

Baffled. I am truly baffled that there is no standard witness or juror’s oath or affirmation in our court system. Nor does there appear to be a standard court instruction to inform those to be sworn in of any alternative affirmation. Considering the number of different religious sects, organizations, beliefs, non-beliefs and churches in Middle America alone, the Missouri courts seem to believe that witnesses and jurors can only swear to a single god. What is wrong with this picture?

The architects of our government wrote an amazing document. They laid the groundwork, structure, rules and approach of “The Great Experiment.” An experiment, I might add, that is ongoing, changing and usually responsive to its citizens. The architects of this experiment also correctly noted that government, including the court, is secular in nature and “instituted among Men,” not by sectarian or religious orders.

A while ago, I was called to be a juror for a criminal trial. Unlike some, I take jury service seriously. It is my civic duty; a sign of my loyalty to the Constitution of the United States and of the State of Missouri. It is part of the American judicial process. Yet, I was disturbed when it came time to take the juror’s oath.

The jury, as a body, was asked to swear that the responses they gave to the court during the jury selection process, the voir dire, were truthful and “perfect answers to such questions as may be asked you touching your qualifications.” Collectively, potential jurors “swear to God that (their) answers are truthful and perfect.”

I have two questions concerning this affirmation of faith to government. First, which god? Most Americans believe that our allegiance is to the Christian god. There is often reference to swearing on a King James Bible, though we are no longer required to place our hand on a holy book. However, consider a Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and any of the multitude of others to whom Jesus Christ is not god. Is the court asking these people to swear to a deity they do not acknowledge? Consider non-believers, humanists, atheists and agnostics. Do we force the good and honest citizens of this state and country to swear to an entity they believe is, at best, mythical?

During my calling, the jury pool was not informed of an alternative oath, and there is no requirement to do so by the rules of the court. We were considered to be a single entity. It is assumed by the court that we are all believers of the same faith and that our allegiance is to the same god. In fact, I would swear my allegiance to the Constitution of the United States and of Missouri, to the law of the land and of man, but not to a deity to which I do not subscribe.

According to the court clerk, it is the discretion of the judge to use an oath or affirmation of the court’s choice. There is no standard oath or affirmation, nor is there a rule to inform potential jurors or witnesses of the availability of an alternative to the swearing-in process. Those receiving the oath to witness or judge are, in essence, at the mercy of the court.

The courts of our state and nation need to be held to a higher standard when providing instructions to potential witnesses and jurors, not only of their responsibilities and of the law, but also of the alternatives to the swearing process. The court needs to be acutely aware of the beliefs of the citizens of this great state.

It is time for the Missouri Supreme Court and Bar Association to adopt a standardized oath and affirmation. It is time for the rules of the court to require instructions to potential jurors and witnesses of alternative affirmations, recognizing the multitude of beliefs within our borders. I may even be as bold as to suggest that affirmations be limited to upholding the laws of the land and the state and federal constitutions.

My second question: What is meant by “truthful and perfect?”

David Rosman is a business and political communications consultant, professional speaker and instructor at Columbia College. He welcomes your comments at ProfDave1011@netscape.net.


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