February 2020 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

Three of four newly elected members of the Manlius, N.Y., Town Board opted to take their oaths of office on a book containing the town codes last month.

The three – John Deer, Elaine Den­­ton and Heather Waters – put a hand on the codes book during their Dec. 30 swearing in. The fourth new member, Katelyn Kriesel, chose to stick with the Bible, reported the news site Syracuse.com.

Deer, Denton and Waters, who are all Democrats, said they had various reasons for using the codes book. Deer said he is an atheist who believes in separation of church and state, and Denton said using a legal book just seemed right for her.

Waters said she wanted to use a neutral book. In an interview with Church & State, she said, “I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to swear in on before the ceremony. I thought if it were about reflecting who I am, maybe a work by Fayetteville suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage. But I also thought maybe a text wasn’t necessary. And if I had one on hand, I suppose I would have chosen New York state’s constitution over our codes book – a binder with some flapping yellow Post-it notes.

“I knew I would not choose the Bible because I believe that it confuses people about our commitment to the separation of the practice of one’s individual faith and our participation in government,” she ad­ded. “Also, it is not inclusive. The Bible is not every one of my con­sti­tuents’ holy text, and I want someone to gauge my character and ability to serve by my actions, not by my professed faith.”

Waters said she has been pleased by the response to her actions.

“I received terrific feedback from many people in my neighborhood and community, including a number of those of the Jewish faith,” she said. “There were over 700 comments on the article, and only a few people convinced I was going to hell or trying to be trendy.”

Contrary to popular belief, nothing in the U.S. Constitution requires officeholders to take an oath of office on the Bible. Although most legislators still follow that tradition, some are going in other directions.

Muslim members of Congress have opted to be sworn in on copies of the Quran, and U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) was sworn in on a law book in 2017.

Last year, Kelli Dunaway, a newly elected member of the St. Louis County Council in Missouri, chose to be sworn in on a copy of Oh, The Places You’ll Go!, a book by famous children’s author Dr. Seuss.

Manlius, a city of about 32,000 people, is located in Onondaga County, east of Syracuse.