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Everyone has heard the procedure to get sworn in in an American court:

Put your hand on a Holy Bible and answer yes to "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?"

However swearing on a Holy Bible to God has decidedly Christian roots (regardless of whether it is actually a Christian practice) in an official setting in a country with a constitution that explicitly gives freedom of religion.

As a non-Christian can you refuse to make such a vow?

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    Also see similar: law.stackexchange.com/questions/3375/… – gracey209 Sep 23 '15 at 17:11
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    @TechnikEmpire This is one of the reasons that there's an official alternate wording for legally required oaths that uses the terms "affirm" and "affirmation" instead of "swear" and "oath" -- even before people cared about atheists, the Quakers were unwilling to swear an oath (but were willing to affirm that they would tell the truth in court like they did in the rest of their lives). – cpast Sep 23 '15 at 18:54
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    In Britain one has been able to affirm an oath, as an alternative to swearing on the bible, since the Quakers Act of 1695. Presumably that applied in the 13 colonies - or did it? But there is an important difference about taking the oath in Britain to the practice in the USA. You actually have to say the words (they give you a card to read from). I swear by Almighty God that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. (There is no so help me God, in the British oath. It is something I have never understood about the American oath). – WS2 Sep 24 '15 at 13:18
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    Please take discussion about whether swearing like this is actually Christian to Christanity.SE or its chatroom please. – ratchet freak Sep 25 '15 at 15:35
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In order to accommodate various objections that have arisen in recent generations, in general:

  • You are allowed to "affirm" instead of "swear"
  • You do not have to say "so help me God"
  • You do not have to place your hand on a Bible or any object

These variances are often allowed by statute.

A witnessed "solemn affirmation" has the same legal consequences as the traditional swearing on a Bible: I.e., you would be held to the same statutes and rules that apply to sworn statements.

  • Good answer! Many courts do not even use a bible. Especially east and west coast U.S. Bible belt...well that's another story! – gracey209 Sep 23 '15 at 17:14
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    Affirmation didn't arise recently, unless 1695 is "recent." As someone mentioned in comments to the question, they're not just useful for people who don't want to inject religion into court proceedings. – cpast Sep 23 '15 at 19:00
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    @Mehrdad: There's actually quite a lot of evidence to suggest that rocks do exist... – psmears Oct 27 '15 at 21:47
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    The possible down side to this is that the jury may judge you for refusing to swear on a religious book. They shouldn't, but when ex-president Bush says that he doesn't think atheists are citizens and stands by it, it may actually be better to lie. That creates an interesting possibility - could one argue that they can't get a fair trial, because exercising their right not to swear on a bible would prejudice the jury? Could their defence question the jury on this matter and have some of them excused? – user Oct 28 '15 at 17:12
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    @Mehrdad: non-Christians are not the only concern. Many Anabaptists, for example, take Matthew 5:34 seriously and do not make oaths. – mattdm Apr 26 '18 at 0:04
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In Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961), the Supreme Court held that

Neither a State nor the Federal Government can... pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against nonbelievers, and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.

In this case the Court struck down a statute that required state office holders to declare their belief in God as a qualification for holding any office of profit or trust in the state. In this case, Torcaso was appointed as a notary public but was refused his commission when he would not swear that he believed in God.

The Maryland Constitution at the time required a declaration of a belief in God:

[N]o religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God....

Torcaso challenged the constitutionality of the requirement. The Circuit Court rejected his argument and the Court of Appeals (the highest court in the state) held that:

The petitioner is not compelled to believe or disbelieve, under threat of punishment or other compulsion. True, unless he makes the declaration of belief, he cannot hold public office in Maryland, but he is not compelled to hold office.

So Torcaso appealed to the Supreme Court of the US and they made short work of the question and issued a unanimous opinion, concluding that:

This Maryland religious test for public office unconstitutionally invades the appellant's freedom of belief and religion, and therefore cannot be enforced against him.

There is no precise method for accommodating your preference. A person who does not want to take a religious oath pretty much just needs to ask for a secular affirmation.

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