December 15, 2019

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Secular courts need unencumbered oaths

Editorial

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/1/2019 (317 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Fairness, equality and rational thought: those attributes should govern Manitoba courtrooms. Those same attributes are reasons why it’s hard to justify the continued use of holy books and spiritual symbols when witnesses swear oaths in court.

Manitoba RCMP last week launched an initiative that will give eagle feathers the same legal standing as the holy books that are traditionally used for sworn statements in this province. They distributed eagle features to 88 RCMP offices in the province so they can be used for oaths that will be admissible in court.

The RCMP’s effort to foster stronger relations with Indigenous people is commendable, but the use of eagle feathers to swear legal oaths brings the same problems as using the Bible, the Torah and the Qur'an.

RCMP members in red serge watch as eagle feathers at "D" Division are cleansed in a Dakota ceremony.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

RCMP members in red serge watch as eagle feathers at "D" Division are cleansed in a Dakota ceremony.

Although Canadian courts are secular places, there’s an antiquated tradition of witnesses asked to place their hand on a holy book and respond to the question: "Do you swear that the evidence you shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?" Courtrooms have copies of the Bible at the ready, but if witnesses want to swear their oath on religious books other than a Bible, or on an eagle’s feather, they’re asked to contact Crown counsel at least one week in advance so court staff can arrange to provide the requested item.

This practice is unequal in a multi-faith province such as Manitoba, partly because some religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, don’t have a single holy book which is considered integral to their faith.

It’s true that witnesses can decline the option of swearing on a holy book or eagle feather and choose the option to "affirm," in which case they will be asked a question that doesn’t refer to a supernatural deity.

Unfortunately, this option violates the individual’s right to religious privacy. Courts should not probe the religious practices of witnesses, but this infringement occurs when witnesses are forced to choose the option of affirming, thereby giving a telling suggestion of their religious beliefs, or lack thereof.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Eagle feathers will be placed at RCMP detachments in Manitoba.</p>

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Eagle feathers will be placed at RCMP detachments in Manitoba.

Some might argue that keeping religion as part of legal oaths strengthens the credibility of witnesses, that believers are more likely to tell the truth if they invoke a divine being. This is actually another bias against the perceived integrity of people who choose to affirm. Courts rely on evidence and rational conclusions: where is the evidence that witnesses who invoke God are more honest?

As a high-profile example, take U.S. President Donald Trump, who was sworn into office on Jan. 20, 2017, with his left hand on a pair of Bibles, his personal copy and the Lincoln Bible. Can anyone suggest Mr. Trump’s swearing of his nation’s highest oath, on what literally was a stack of Bibles, has led him to navigate his presidency with a high level of integrity and truth?

Perhaps it’s time to remove religion from the swearing of legal oaths, as has already been done in some jurisdictions in Australia and the United States. Let everyone use the non-religious oath of affirmation, which asks: "Do you solemnly affirm that the evidence you shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?"

When there is one oath for all, all will be equal before the court.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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