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?