A secular group says it's an "egregious violation of freedom of conscience" to force political candidates to swear a religious oath. (Getty Images)
A New Jersey man who claims he can’t run for public office because he refuses to swear an oath to God is suing the state over the mandatory religious vow.
James Tosone argues that requiring political candidates to take a religious oath is a violation of the First and 14th Amendments because it bars citizens who are unable to swear “so help me God” from the ballot, according to the suit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Trenton.
Tosone says this requirement effectively bars New Jersey residents who have no religious affiliation from running for public office. The statute also coerces “Christians who belong to sects that eschew swearing oaths to a deity, such as some Mennonites or Quakers, to violate both their religious and consciences in order to run for public office,” the complaint says.
He’s asking a judge for a permanent injunction halting Secretary of State Tahesha Way from requiring candidates to take the oath and ordering Way to provide forms for the candidates that do not have that requirement. Way is also the lieutenant governor.
“It’s an egregious violation of freedom of conscience — as well as our Constitution — to compel nontheists to take a religious oath,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, copresident of secular advocacy group Freedom From Religion Foundation, said in a statement. “This legal challenge seeks to put an end to this discriminatory and anachronistic practice.”
Tosone, a Bergen County resident who is “seriously considering” running for a seat in the House of Representatives, said he is a nontheist and “sincerely believes, as a matter of conscience, that he cannot swear ‘so help me God,’” the complaint says.
Political candidates in New Jersey must file a candidate petition that requires them to sign the New Jersey Oath of Allegiance, which uses the phrase in question.
Tosone alleges he asked state election officials in 2021 if he could sign a document that did not include the phrase but was told state statute requires the wording.
Tosone ran for a state Senate seat in the 39th Legislative District in 2021, receiving 0.5% of the vote, as a Libertarian but said his religious beliefs have evolved since then and prevent him from signing New Jersey’s candidate forms now.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation — which says it has 800 members in New Jersey — alleges it wrote to the state Attorney General’s Office in May 2022 questioning the oath.
“Requiring someone who is running for elected office in New Jersey to profess to a god in which they do not believe would make a mockery out of the oath and the solemn promise to support the Constitution,” the letter reads.
The lawsuit notes that other election-related activities — like registering to vote or declaring a party affiliation — don’t require a religious oath.
A spokesperson for the secretary of state did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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