Keep God Out of the Swearing-in!

by Tommi Avicolli-Mecca on January 6, 2009

From the moment I heard about the controversy over the selection of anti-gay minister Rick Warren to give the invocation at president-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration on January 20, I asked the obvious question: Whatever happened to separation of church and state?

Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one. A group of atheist and other “freedom from religion” organizations filed suit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. on December 30 to halt the use of “so help me God” in the oath of office. It also asks the Court to prohibit ministers from giving the invocation and the benediction at the swearing-in ceremony. I couldn’t be happier.

Things have been getting religion-heavy over in Obama swearing-in land. In the wake of the furor over Warren, who supported Prop 8, the anti-gay marriage ballot initiative in California, the president-elect asked a second minister, the more liberal (and pro-gay) Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, to do the benediction. The compromise hasn’t quelled the anger in the queer community over Warren’s continued presence at the ceremony.

It also hasn’t stopped atheists and other believers in separation of church and state from saying No to all religion at what should be a strictly secular event.

The legal effort is being led by atheist lawyer Michael Newdow, who filed a similar suit against Bush’s 2001 and 2005 inaugurations. He also unsuccessfully challenged the phrase “under god” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

According to the suit, “There can be no purpose for placing ‘so help me God’ in an oath or sponsoring prayers to God, other than promoting the particular point of view that God exists.”

Amen. As a gay man, I am outraged that Obama would choose a minister who so clearly has a problem with queers. As an atheist I am offended that Christianity is being promoted at a state function.

There’s no legal basis for its inclusion. The U.S. Constitution says nothing about a president using a bible in taking the oath of office. In fact, President John Quincy Adams used a law book, and Franklin Pierce and Theodore Roosevelt swore on no books at all. It’s not just presidents. In November, 2006, Minnesota U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison sparked national controversy when he chose the Quran as the book on which to lay his hand.

The phrase “so help me God” wasn’t even in the oath until President Franklin Roosevelt used it less than 100 years ago (though some claim it was Lincoln who first included it). The Constitution does not mention anything about a minister or other religious person giving an invocation or benediction during the swearing-in. It does forbid establishment of a state religion.

It’s one thing for Obama to have his own personal religious beliefs, or even to mention his deity in his remarks at the swearing-in. It’s another thing entirely to include not one but two ministers and to place his hand on a book that represents the religion of those clergymen, not to mention take an oath that recognizes their guy in the sky. Sounds like a state religion to me.

It’s time God got dis-invited to the swearing-in.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca is co-editor of Avanti Popolo: Italians Sailing Beyond Columbus, and editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation, which will be published next year by City Lights Books. His website:

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