BOSTON — Nearly every elected official in Massachusetts, from the governor on down to members of town boards, recites the phase "so help me, God" when taking the oath of office.
On Beacon Hill, a key committee in the Democrat-controlled Legislature wants to eliminate the reference to the deity.
A proposal approved last week by the influential Joint Committee on the Judiciary calls for using a secular version, known as the Quaker oath, which substitutes "swear" with "affirm" and the phrase "so help me, God" with, "This I do under the pains and penalties of perjury."
The measure was filed by Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, and 13 other Democratic lawmakers including Reps. Christina Minicucci, D-North Andover, and Tram Nguyen, D-Andover. The group of mostly freshman lawmakers is also backing a proposal to amend the Constitution to make it gender neutral, changing the pronoun "he" to "they" within the document.
Secular groups say the phase "so help me, God" violates the U.S. Constitution's ban on government establishment of religion, and say removing it from official proceedings is long overdue.
"The history of the United States is about pluralism and an insistence that all of the country's legal structures and forms of authority are representative of persons of every belief or a lack of belief," said Zachary Bos, Massachusetts state director for American Atheists. "We support any move that helps to increase the government's commitment to secularism."
Critics, like the conservative Massachusetts Family Institute, say removing "God" from official proceedings is the latest example of secular efforts to diminish the influence of the church.
"It's yet another cynical attempt to erase the rich legacy of faith that has been part of our commonwealth from the Pilgrims to today," said Andrew Beckwith, the group's president.
Proponents of the measure face long odds since it would require an amendment to the state Constitution, the oldest in the country, which requires a lengthy and cumbersome journey. The historic parchment, written by John Adams, has been amended 121 times since it was ratified in 1780, according to the secretary of state's office. Voters most recently changed it in 2006 when they approved the state's health care law.
Amendments must be approved by two consecutive Legislatures -- a process that could take three years or more -- before they are cleared for the ballot.
On a federal level, while many oaths to serve in government include the phrase "so help me God," others -- most notably the presidential oath of office -- do not require it. Still, President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and Donald Trump, a Republican, both used the phrase when taking the oath, a tradition some historians trace to President Abraham Lincoln in 1861.
The military has for years allowed enlisted service members and officers to omit the phrase "so help me God" in appointment oaths, or to use alternate language.
In Congress, the Natural Resources Committee in Democrat-controlled House of Representatives recently proposed removing "God" from the oath taken by witnesses addressing the panel. Republican leaders reacted with dismay, with some pundits suggesting it was a sign of the Democratic Party's leftward shift. The changes were later abandoned.
Two years ago, a woman seeking citizenship filed suit in Massachusetts to remove the phrase "so help me God" from the oath of allegiance taken by those becoming citizens. The case was eventually rejected by a federal judge.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org