Four short words stand between a man and his political aspirations.
“So help me God,” a phrase that punctuates New Jersey’s oath of allegiance, is one that James Tosone, an atheist and congressional hopeful, can’t in good conscience say.
So, he’s suing the state, arguing that obligatory religious oaths are unconstitutional, according to a lawsuit filed Oct. 3 by the the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), an atheist nonprofit.
“It’s an egregious violation of freedom of conscience — as well as our Constitution — to compel nontheists to take a religious oath,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of FFRF, said in a statement. “This legal challenge seeks to put an end to this discriminatory and anachronistic practice.”
Tosone, a self-described political commentator and author of a book on classical guitars, ran unsuccessfully for office in the Garden State several times. Most recently, he ran for state senate in 2021 as a libertarian, garnering 0.5% of the vote, according to Ballotpedia.
Now, he would like to throw his hat into the ring for Congress in 2024 but says he is precluded from doing so by the state’s oath of allegiance.
All candidates for office have to complete a candidate petition, which requires them to sign the New Jersey Oath of Allegiance, according to the lawsuit.
The oath states: “I,____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of New Jersey, and that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same and to the Governments established in the United States and in this State, under the authority of the people so help me God.”
However, a state statute indicates an affirmation — “a solemn vow without reference to a religious deity” — can be swapped in for the oath. The Constitution affords presidents the same option, though only one, Franklin Pierce, opted to affirm rather than swear, according to the White House Historical Association.
In an attempt to clarify his options, Tosone contacted the state’s division of elections, requesting that he be permitted to remove “so help me God” from his oath so he could complete the petition. His request was denied, according to the lawsuit.
By denying him the option to scrap “so help me God,” the state, Tosone argues, is violating his rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, which prohibit religious tests for public office.
The rights of millions of others, too, are being infringed on, according to the FFRF.
“Not only is Tosone, as a nontheist, barred from running for public office under this policy, as are New Jersey citizens who have no religious affiliation (24 percent of the New Jersey population) are also affected, among others,” the FFRF statement said.
Through the lawsuit, Tosone is seeking to permanently prohibit the secretary of state from requiring citizens to utter the words “So help me God.”
When contacted by McClatchy News, a spokesperson for the state attorney general said “the office has no comment on the litigation.”