LINCOLN — A lawmaker who once sued God is picking another bone with the Almighty.
State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha asked a legislative committee Friday to support his bill removing the phrase “so help me God” from oaths administered to elected officials and jurors.
Chambers wants to give people, when administered such oaths, the option of “affirming” rather than “swearing” that they will perform their duties, because many people don't believe in swearing.
An atheist, Chambers pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a “religion test” cannot be required to hold an elected office.
“No person can be compelled to acknowledge any God,” he told the Legislature's Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.
For instance, he said, the president is not required to use the phrase “so help me God” when he or she is sworn in to office, or to use a Bible on which to place his or her hand when providing that oath.
He said “swearing” is condemned by Jesus, yet even those who believe in the Bible put their hand on the book and swear.
Chambers, 75, returned to the Legislature this year after sitting out four years because of term limits. He had represented his north Omaha district for 38 years prior to that.
The senator, who has a law degree from Creighton University, filed a lawsuit against God in 2007. Chambers said the purpose of the lawsuit was to uphold a citizen's right to sue anyone, even God.
But the lawsuit was thrown out after a Douglas County judge ruled there was no evidence that God had been served notice of the case. District Judge Marlon Polk said “there can never be service effectuated” on God.
Chambers objected, saying it was inconsistent of the court to take “judicial notice” of the Almighty by using the phrase “so help you God” in oaths administered to jurors and trial witnesses while ruling that an all-knowing God could be unaware of his lawsuit.
No one appeared at the committee hearing Friday to testify against Chambers' proposal on oaths, Legislative Bill 603.
But two groups supported the bill: the Nebraska Secular Advocates and the Nebraska Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU, in written testimony, called the bill “an excellent clarification of what the government may expect of its citizens,” both those with religious beliefs and those without.
Several Christian-based groups, the ACLU pointed out, oppose the use of the phrase “I swear,” including the Amish, Quakers and Jehovah's Witnesses.
The New Testament, in Matthew 5:33-37, states “do not swear an oath at all” and that anything more than a simple yes or no “comes from the evil one.”
Secular Advocates is a new group of about 25 who represent “atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and secularists.”
Justin Evertson of Waverly, Neb., a representative of the group, told the committee that “swearing” to an oath had a religious connotation and that the Chambers bill provided a proper separation between church and state.
Evertson, an atheist, said people should be given the choice to “affirm” rather than swear when taking an oath of office.
Sen. Scott Price of Bellevue asked Chambers during the hearing if it was improper to use the term “swearing in” if you were not allowed to swear to an oath.
Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins pointed out that while nothing requires a president from adding the words “so help me God” when he takes the oath of office, nothing prevents it, either.
That was the case in January when President Obama used the phrase in his oath, continuing a tradition that some historians trace to Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Others point to it beginning with Chester Arthur's inauguration in 1881.
After the hearing, two other lawmakers on the eight-member committee said Chambers had raised some good points, particularly about discrepancies in state law.
Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, the committee chairman, pointed out that new members of the Legislature are given the option of swearing or affirming that they will carry out their duties when given the oath of office. But members of the Omaha-area Learning Community board — of which Chambers was a member — are permitted only to “swear” in their oath.
Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk, who joined the Legislature in January, said Nebraskans, like the president, ought to be given the choice of using the phrase “so help me God” or not. Any inconsistencies in state law over affirming versus swearing should be cleaned up, he said.
“I don't think it's anything controversial,” Scheer said of LB 603. “It's more a technical, clean-up bill.”
Contact the writer: 402-473-9584, email@example.com