Alabama officials sued over voter registration form requiring ‘so help me God’ vow

A secular advocacy group has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of three plaintiffs, arguing that the state’s requirement violates their constitutional rights.

(RNS) — A secular advocacy group has filed a federal lawsuit challenging a voter registration form in Alabama, arguing the state violates the constitutional rights of applications by requiring them to declare “so help me God” when signing up to vote.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed the lawsuit on Thursday (Oct. 1) against Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, alleging that since Alabama’s form does not offer a secular alternative to “so help me God,” it infringes upon the rights of voters. 

“The Alabama secretary of state excludes Alabama citizens from being able to vote if they are unable to swear a religious oath,” the lawsuit reads. “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.”

The complaint, listing three plaintiffs, says that Alabama is the only state in the U.S. to require such a declaration from voters on its registration form.

Among the plaintiffs in the case is Randal Cragun, a visiting assistant professor of economics at Birmingham-Southern College, an Alabama resident and an atheist. According to the suit, he attempted to register to vote in November 2019 but noticed that the form he downloaded from the Secretary of State’s website begins with “I solemnly swear or affirm” and ends with “so help me God.”

Cragun allegedly contacted the Secretary of State’s office to ask whether he could register to vote without using the phrase. According to the FFRC complaint, he was told there was no mechanism for doing so, and that crossing out the phrase would result in his registration form being rejected.

The complaint states, “As a matter of conscience, Mr. Cragun is unable to swear ‘so help me God.’”

FFRF’s lawyers argue that the policy violates, among other things, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits laws “respecting an establishment of religion.”

“The secretary of state has willfully excluded non-theist citizens from registering to vote and is coercing a statement of belief in a monotheistic god by requiring non-theists to swear a religious oath,” Patrick Elliott, a FFRF lawyer, said in a press release.

The lawsuit is seeking a permanent injunction that would not only stop the state from requiring voters to swear so help me God when registering, but also order the secretary of state to provide registration forms that would allow plaintiffs to register without using the phrase.

The Alabama Secretary of State’s office did not comment on the case, noting that they have yet to be served.