Suffolk Humanists

For a good life, without religion

The right to affirm, in court and elsewhere

Posted by Margaret on Wednesday, Mar 9, 2011

At our meeting last night we were talking about Charles Bradlaugh, founder of the National Secular Society, and how he was prevented from taking up his seat in Parliament because he wouldn’t swear an oath on the Bible.

In 1880, after three unsuccessful earlier attempts, Bradlaugh was elected to Parliament for Northampton. When he asked to affirm instead of taking an oath before taking his seat, a parliamentary select committee declared that the right freethinkers had to affirm in law courts didn’t extend to Parliament. He then asked to take the oath, but another select committee found his known atheism prevented this but he should be allowed to affirm under pain of statute (penalties for voting without taking the prescribed oath). The battle over his being sworn in began the day he took his seat and voted, and resulted in convoluted legal arguments continuing for six years. Eventually, in 1886 after the 1885 general election he was allowed by the Speaker to take the oath at the beginning of the session, before objections could be made. While all this had been going on, his seat was vacated but he was re-elected at three by-elections (1881, 1883 and 1884).

During the discussion, it emerged that several members had been asked to swear an oath on the Bible – in court, when signing an affidavit, and when joining the police – and had said they preferred to affirm. The officers involved had made comments like, “No one’s ever done that before!”. We wondered why so few people exercise their right to affirm, and it seemed likely it’s because they don’t know that they can. When asked to swear an oath, does anyone ever offer an alternative?

The Oaths Act 1978 says,

5   Making of solemn affirmations.

(1)   Any person who objects to being sworn shall be permitted to make his solemn affirmation instead of taking an oath.

(2)   Subsection (1) above shall apply in relation to a person to whom it is not reasonably practicable without inconvenience or delay to administer an oath in the manner appropriate to his religious belief as it applies in relation to a person objecting to be sworn.

(3)   A person who may be permitted under subsection (2) above to make his solemn affirmation may also be required to do so.

(4)   A solemn affirmation shall be of the same force and effect as an oath.

6   Form of affirmation.

(1)   Subject to subsection (2) below, every affirmation shall be as follows:

I, do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm, and then proceed with the words of the oath prescribed by law, omitting any words of imprecation or calling to witness.

(2)   Every affirmation in writing shall commence:

I, of , do solemnly and sincerely affirm, and the form in lieu of jurat shall be Affirmed at this day of 19 , Before me.

Did you know that you don’t have to swear on the Bible? Has anyone made it difficult for you to do so, or suggested that your affirmation may be taken less seriously that an oath on the Bible?

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