Row over religious oath for Obama's inauguration ceremony

By Ecumenical News International
January 8, 2009

Supporters of a strict interpretation of the separation of Church and State in the United States have filed a lawsuit seeking an end of the use of the term "so help me God" during President-elect Barack Obama's 20 January 2009 inaugural ceremony - writes Chris Herlinger.

The lawsuit, initiated by groups of US atheists and humanists, also wants an end to the practice of prayer and invocations at public events.

"We think the law is on our side," Bob Ritter, an attorney for the American Humanist Association, was quoted as saying by the Washington Post, citing what he said are clear US constitutional dictates.

Among the claims of the lawsuit, announced on 29 December 2008, is that the phrase "so help me God", which has been used at least since the time of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, is not specifically mentioned as part of the presidential oath prescribed by the US Constitution.

Historians are divided as to whether earlier US presidents, including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, used the phrase.

Among those pressing the lawsuit in District Court in Washington, DC, is Michael Newdow, an attorney who has lost several similar high-profile lawsuits in the past. These included efforts to prevent references to God being used during the 2001 and 2005 inaugural ceremonies of President George W. Bush.

Scott Walter, executive director of the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said it opposed the suit and called Newdow's effort a publicity stunt.

"Newdow's lawsuit over the inauguration is a lot like the streaker at the Superbowl: a pale, self-absorbed distraction," Walter said in a 30 December statement. "And anybody who looks at it carefully can see there's not much there."

The lawsuit is the latest religious controversy surrounding the Obama inaugural ceremony.

Gay activists have criticised the president-elect for asking a well-known US evangelical figure, Rick Warren, an opponent of same-sex marriage, to deliver prayers at the 20 January ceremony.

[Update: the lawsuit was rejected.]

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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