So help me what?

My recent cringe worthy experience with courtroom oaths.


You can't handle

Last month I was required to serve as a juror for a two week long federal criminal case.  Most people that I spoke with viewed jury duty as a task to be avoided at all cost.  I have to admit that initially I was in that camp of people as well.  I simply couldn’t get past the thought of being disrupted from the rhythm of my week.   As soon as I realized that I was one of the people chosen, I was immediately overcome with dread.  I’d envisioned myself hold up for hours in a dank room with eleven strangers arguing over the fate of someone whom I did not know.  But once into it, I found the entire process to be educational on so many levels. Everyone from the judge to the attorneys on both sides treated us with cordiality and respect, even going as far as holding a post-trial Q&A session in the deliberating room.  It was neat that they sacrificed some of their time to talk with us about their processes.  They even went as far as to ask us for feedback on the way they presented the case and how it played out in our decision at the end.

I also experienced another educational component to serving in the federal court system as a juror.  Prior to assuming our official duties, we were asked to stand, raise our right hands, and…well I’m guessing you probably know where I’m heading here.  The old “so help you God” phrase embedded in the oath.  Call me naive, but I still find it difficult to believe that in 2017, we’re still seriously using this tag line to encourage jurors and witnesses to govern themselves in respectable and truthful manners.  I did as instructed, however each time a new witness was being sworn in to testify, that old cringing sensation would kick into gear.  And each time that I heard those four words “so help you God,” my mind interjected five very different words in response- “separation of church and state.”  I suppose that most people would argue that I’m completely wasting my energy in hoping that someday the legal system will eventually omit those words from its practice?  An indignant part of me almost wanted someone to respond with the words of the little boy in the courtroom scene from the movie Miracle on 34th Street – “well gee, everybody knows you’re supposed to tell the truth.”

My response to this is nothing new.  I’ve always wondered about the initial intent around inserting “so help you God” into the swearing in process.  Was it based on an assumption that the witness may fear that they will invoke the wrath of God upon themselves if they tell anything but the truth? That knowingly misplacing the truth in their testimony would somehow invalidate their ticket to heaven?  As I said in my early posts, I try to be respectful of others’ beliefs and practices even if I don’t align with them.  But the continuing practice of embedding theism into the justice system is something that feels completely archaic in my opinion.

I’m grateful for the experience that I had serving as a juror.  I appreciated the cordiality which the judge and lawyers extended to us throughout the process.  The complimentary Dunkin Doughnuts and coffee that they provided for us every morning were appreciated by all to say the least!   But I cannot help but to be surprised that in this day and age, we are still operating under the assumption that each and every person who passes through the courtroom is expected to adhere to theistic based vows.

Quite frankly I don’t know what the answer to this will be.  What would be a happy medium for the court system to use to avoid mixing piety with executing the requirement that witnesses be truthful in their testimony?   In speaking with fellow non-theist recently, I was told that there is a provision for military enlistees to take an affirmation statement over an oath in order to accommodate non-theists.  Seeing that this was never offered during my 2 week jury duty tenure, I’m guessing that this same right is not offered in the court system.  It’s something that is sparking me to do some research so that I can become educated on my rights as a non-theist juror as well as inform others who also have troubles with the swearing in process using God based oaths.

In the full scope of negative events going on in our world right now, this is one issue that I may temporarily put on the back burner at least for now.  That it certainly will not kill us non-theists to comply with the legal system’s requirement that we take archaic vows, invoking the name of a smiting god if only for the sake of moving a trial along.   Even if we do pick and choose this battle, I would imagine that it may be a steep mountain to climb.  But hey, if I’ve adapted to swimming upstream as a non-theistic hospital chaplain, I can also join fellow non-theists in gaining the ability to climb the steep mountain on the path to changing outdated government practices.

Carpe Diem!