Something unusual happened in Manlius, N.Y., recently: Three of four newly elected members of the Town Board opted to take their oaths of office on a book containing the town codes.
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 use a 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.
Americans United reached out to all three via email and Twitter to thank them for standing up for separation of church and state. In an email with Americans United, Waters went into a little more detail about her decision to use the codes book.
“I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to swear-in on before the ceremony,” Waters said. “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 received mostly positive responses from the community. (Manlius is located in Onondaga County, east of Syracuse.)
“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 (or any other book, for that matter). Although most legislators still follow that tradition, some are going in other directions.
Muslim members in Congress have opted to be sworn in on copies of the Quran, and U.S. Sen. Krysten 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.
Although individual conscience should be the guide here, swearing-in on a book of laws, as Deer, Denton and Waters did, makes sense. After all, it’s those laws – and not any dictates found in the Bible or any other religious tome – that elected officials vow to uphold.