North Carolina's Supreme Court issued a controversial ruling yesterday when it chose to compel a lower court judge to use references to God when he enters the courtroom and when swearing in witnesses, according to The Washington Post.
In an effort to respect the increasing number of non-Christians and people of diverse beliefs served by his court, District Judge James M. Honeycutt had revised the oath to permit witnesses to "affirm" their intent to be truthful rather than take an oath referring to God. He had also requested that his bailiffs not begin court sessions with the proclamation "God save the state and this honorable court."
Although Judge Honeycutt will likely comply with the higher court's order, the North Carolina Supreme Court has entered into an historic debate over the role of religion in judicial proceedings. In his 1869 treatise On Liberty, John Stuart Mill identifies the paradox inherent in compelling a witness to testify in the name of God.
Under pretence that atheists must be liars, it admits the testimony of all atheists who are willing to lie, and rejects only those who brave the obloquy of publicly confessing a detested creed rather than affirm a falsehood. A rule thus self-convicted of absurdity so far as regards its professed purpose, can be kept in force only as a badge of hatred, a relic of persecution; a persecution, too, having the peculiarity, that the qualification for undergoing it, is the being clearly proved not to deserve it. The rule, and the theory it implies, are hardly less insulting to believers than to infidels.
Mill understood that the inclusion of God in court proceedings is a serious matter. Judge Honeycutt is right to see a dilemma between needing to serve the growing numbers of people of diverse beliefs who enter his court and business as usual. Although, the Supreme Court of North Carolina has chosen to disagree with his method, the inclusion of people of varied faiths and none at all represents a serious issue for our judicial system.