ACLU of North Carolina Applauds Court Ruling Preventing Religious Discrimination in the Courtroom
Judge Says Multiple Religious Texts Must Be Allowed For Swearing-In Proceedings
RALEIGH – The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina today applauded a ruling by Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway requiring that people of non-Christian faiths must be allowed to use religious texts other than the Christian Bible when being sworn in as jurors or witnesses in state court proceedings.
Judge Ridgeway wrote: “The highest aim of every legal contest is the search for the truth. To require pious and faithful practitioners of religions other than Christianity to swear oaths in a form other than the form most meaningful to them would thwart the search for the truth.”
The lawsuit was originally filed in July 2005 in Superior Court in Wake County on behalf of the ACLU of North Carolina’s statewide membership of approximately 8,000 individuals of many different faiths, including Islam and Judaism.
In November 2005, the ACLU added another plaintiff to the case, Syidah Mateen, a Muslim woman who was denied the option of using the Quran when she was being sworn in as a witness in a court proceeding in Guilford County. She was told that the only holy text used in the courtroom is the King James Version of the Bible. A superior court judge dismissed the ACLU’s lawsuit in December 2005, ruling that neither Mateen nor the ACLU could present a “case or controversy” that was ripe for judicial review. But in January 2007, a unanimous North Carolina Court of Appeals overturned that dismissal and ruled that the case could go forward.
“Today’s court ruling makes it clear that the government cannot favor one set of religious values over another and must allow all individuals of faith to be sworn in on the holy text that is in accordance with their faith,” said Jennifer Rudinger, Executive Director of the ACLU of North Carolina. “By allowing only the Christian Bible to be used in the administration of religious oaths in the courtroom, the state had been discriminating against people of non-Christian faiths, such as Syidah Mateen.”
The ACLU lawsuit sought a court order clarifying that phrase “Holy Scriptures” in state law is broad enough to allow the use of multiple religious texts in addition to the Christian Bible in the administration of courtroom oaths. While declining to interpret the phrase “Holy Scriptures” to be so inclusive, Judge Ridgeway looked to centuries of well-settled North Carolina case law and wrote an 18-page opinion stating that in the interest of justice, all people of faith must be allowed to be sworn in on the holy text that is in accordance with their faith and that the scripture requirement is merely one of many ways in which oaths may be administered in North Carolina.
“Today’s ruling is a very important victory for all people of faith in North Carolina,” said Seth Cohen, General Counsel for the ACLU of North Carolina. and lead counsel in this case. “When the government gets involved in playing favorites among religions, all religious freedom is jeopardized.”
Existing North Carolina statutes also allow for the use of a religious oath to be sworn “with upraised hand,” without the use of any religious text, and for the use of a secular oath such that the word “affirm” replaces the word “swear” and the words “so help me God” are deleted. The ACLU lawsuit did not concern either of these two options and addressed only the use of a religious oath that also involves the use of a religious text, as codified in N.C.G.S. § 11 2 and as previously interpreted by state judges to allow only the King James Version of the Bible to be used.
The state has 30 days to decide whether to appeal today’s ruling.
Judge Ridgeway’s ruling is online at: www.aclu.org/religion/govtfunding/29873lgl20070524.html