North Carolina Appeals Court Allows ACLU Lawsuit Over Court Swearing-in Practice to Go Forward

January 16, 2007 12:00 am

Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States


ACLU is Challenging State's Refusal to Allow Religious Oaths Not Sworn on the Bible

RALEIGH, NC - A unanimous North Carolina Court of Appeals today ruled that the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina can proceed with its lawsuit challenging state courts' practice of refusing to allow people of non-Christian faiths to swear religious oaths using any text other than the Christian Bible.

"We are very happy with the Court of Appeals' decision today," said Seth Cohen, General Counsel for the ACLU of North Carolina and lead counsel in this case. "This is an important issue that affects thousands of people of faith across North Carolina who are not of the Christian faith, and we look forward to a hearing on the Constitutional questions raised by this case."

The ACLU filed the lawsuit in July 2005 in Superior Court in Wake County on behalf of the organization'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.

In December 2005, a superior court judge dismissed the ACLU lawsuit, ruling that neither Mateen nor the ACLU could present a "case or controversy" that was ripe for judicial review - in other words, that the harm suffered by the plaintiffs in this case was too speculative to merit review by a court. Today, writing for a unanimous Court of Appeals, Chief Judge John Martin reversed the dismissal, allowing the case to proceed. Judges Elmore and Jackson joined in the opinion. The opinion is available online at:

The ACLU lawsuit seeks a court order clarifying that North Carolina's existing statute governing religious oaths is broad enough to allow the use of multiple religious texts in addition to the Christian Bible. In the alternative, if the court does not agree that the phrase "Holy Scriptures" in the North Carolina state statute must be read to permit texts such as the Quran, the Hebrew Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita in addition to the Christian Bible, then the ACLU is asking the court to strike down the practice of allowing the use of any religious texts in the administration of religious oaths.

"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 is discriminating against people of non-Christian faiths."

Prior to filing its lawsuit, the ACLU of North Carolina wrote to the Administrative Office of the Courts in June 2005 calling upon that rule-making body to adopt a policy allowing the use of the Quran and other religious texts for the swearing of oaths in court proceedings. The Al Ummil Ummat Islamic Center had previously offered to donate copies of the Quran to the Guilford County court system for this purpose. Muslim groups, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and interfaith religious organizations also called upon the state courts to respect religious diversity in North Carolina by allowing the use of multiple religious texts in addition to the Bible.

On July 14, 2005, the Administrative Office responded that it was declining to adopt any rule concerning the use of religious texts and indicated that either the legislature or a court ruling would have to decide this question. The ACLU said it does not believe that the existing statute needs to be amended by the legislature. This lawsuit asks the court for an interpretation of the phrase "Holy Scriptures" that is broad enough to include multiple religious texts.

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 does not concern either of these two options and addresses only the use of a religious oath that also involves the use of a religious text.

The state Attorney General has 30 days to decide whether to seek discretionary review by the North Carolina Supreme Court. If the North Carolina Supreme Court does not review the ruling by the Court of Appeals, then the case will go back to the Superior Court for a review of the Constitutional challenge to the statute.

Sign up to be the first to hear about how to take action.

Learn More About the Issues in This Press Release