When ‘swearing’ in public is OK, and your constitutional duty, too

A government official recently took her oath of office on an Amazon Kindle, leading us to examine the rather unique history of public swearing-in ceremonies as part of one’s constitutional duty.

suzanlevineLast week, Vice President Joe Biden administered an oath to Suzi LeVine, the new U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein. But instead of using a Bible or a paper copy of the Constitution, LeVine used the e-reader device, opened to an electronic copy of the 19th amendment, for the swearing-in ceremony.

In remarks after the event, LeVine, a former Microsoft executive, said she picked the electronic device to make a statement.

“As one of, if not THE first person to take this oath over an electronic device, I am honoring American innovation, entrepreneurship and the fact that each citizen has a voice in our democracy – and more and more tools through which to make that voice heard,” she said.

LeVine’s use of an electronic device during the ceremony is probably a first at the federal level. A group of New Jersey firefighters used an iPad version of the Bible for their local ceremony in February 2013. And in January 2014, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano used an iPad Bible app for his ceremony when a printed Bible couldn’t be found.

But the debate over swearing-in ceremonies is as old as the Constitution itself. The Founding Fathers openly argued about loyalty oaths for government officials during Philadelphia’s Constitutional Convention in 1787.

Roger Sherman argued that oaths required by state governments were adequate. The influential James Wilson didn’t believe oaths were needed to show support for any government. But the supporters of James Madison’s Virginia Plan won out, gaining support of an oath taken by federal and state officials to support a national Constitution.

So Article VI, Section 1, states that, “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

The actual oath’s language was left for Congress to decide.

A separate oath was required for the President under Article II, Section 1, Clause 8. In this case, the presidential oath was written out in the Constitution: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” (The word “affirm” was added to appease Quakers who objected to the use of the word “swear.”)

At the first presidential inauguration, George Washington used a Bible for his ceremony. There is a separate debate about Washington as the first President to add the words “so help me God” to the oath. Author Washington Irving said that President Washington used the words, in his 1856 biography of the first President, but contemporary sources are lacking about the event.

The first version of the oath for government officials (aside from the President’s oath) came from the First Congress in its first act, and it was brief: “I, A.B. do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States.”

Congress expanded the oath during the Civil War, when the words “so help me God” were added officially for the first time to non-presidential oaths. The current oath for most governmental employees was approved by Congress in 1966 as Section 3331 of the federal code and reads: “I, AB, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

However, there are some exceptions to this oath. Section 1011 of the federal code allows Postal Service employees to take an oath that excludes the words “so help me God.”

As for the use of Bibles, Constitutions and the occasional Torah during the ceremony, that isn’t spelled out in the legal requirements for a swearing-in or affirmation ceremony. Most Presidents have used Bibles for their inauguration ceremonies, but it remains unknown how many used Bibles before the Civil War. John Quincy Adams did use a law book containing the Constitution in 1825.

And not all Presidents “swore” during the inaugural oath. Franklin Pierce used the word “affirm” instead in 1853.

In recent years, House Rep. Keith Ellison used a version of the Quran owned by Thomas Jefferson for his individual ceremony, while Rep. Kyrsten Sinema used a Constitution. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a Hindu, used a Bhagavad Gita.

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