A French woman who has been in the United States since 2000 and now seeks to become a citizen is taking issue with one particular part of the United States citizenship oath — the bit about “so help me God.” And now, she’s trying to get that clause taken out.
Olga Paule Perrier-Bilbo moved from Paris to Scituate, Massachusetts, 17 years ago, earning permanent residency in 2004, and has been applying to become a citizen since 2008. And though she’s taken the test twice, Perrier-Bilbo, who is an atheist, has a problem pledging allegiance to a higher power that she doesn’t believe in. On Thursday, she took legal action, filing a federal lawsuit claiming that the phrase violates the Constitution’s promise of religious freedom.
In her complaint, as reported by Law360, she alleges
To be able to join with one’s fellow new United States citizens in taking the oath of naturalization, without being made to feel like an outsider due to one’s religious beliefs, is unquestionably an important benefit for those being naturalized.
Perrier-Bilbo has a green card and was even offered the option of taking a modified oath, but she turned it down; instead, saying that the presence of “so help me God” in the oath is tantamount to the United States government endorsing a religion, MassLive reports. The lawsuit claims that forcing Perrier-Bilbo to use an alternative oath purposefully makes her “feel less than a new citizen” and burdens her “in her exercise of religion.” She was also offered the opportunity to take the oath in private but says that such an arrangement would separate her from other citizens, effectively ostracizing her from her fellow new Americans.
The last time she took the exam was in 2009. On that occasion, she passed and was given the opportunity to participate in the oath without the “so help me God” clause, McClatchy reports, but she refused.
To aid her in the quest to be an American citizen sans God, Perrier-Bilbo has enlisted the help of Michael Newdow, an ER doctor-turned-attorney known for his history in religious freedom cases.
Newdow’s accomplishments are listed on a Wikipedia page that rivals those of O.J. Simpson’s “dream team” lawyers Johnnie Cochran and Robert Shapiro. His profile on the Secular Coalition for America’s homepage points to his famous 2004 case challenging the “one nation under God” clause in the Pledge of Allegiance that went all the way to the Supreme Court. He won that case in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, but his victory was later overturned in the Supreme Court with a 5-3 decision.
In addition to the highly publicized 2004 case, Newdow has also attempted to have “in God we Trust” removed from U.S. currency and “so help me God” taken out of the Presidential Oath of Office — both those undertakings were unsuccessful.
Newdow and Perrier-Bilbo will be fighting an uphill battle, but there is some hope: in his opinion of the 2004 case, Associate Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that Newdow’s role in the case was “antagonistic” since his daughter (who then attended the school that Newdow was suing) probably didn’t want to be the star of a legal battle that landed in the Supreme Court — Perrier-Bilbo might not mind. But, in an email to MassLive, first amendment attorney Law Erwin Chemerinsky expressed doubts for the case, writing that even in “the context of the pledge of allegiance, courts have generally not been receptive to this [particular lawsuit].”