May 29, 2020

Winnipeg
6° C, A few clouds

Full Forecast

Winnipeg Free Press

ABOVE THE FOLD

Help us deliver reliable news during this pandemic.

We are working tirelessly to bring you trusted information about COVID-19. Support our efforts by subscribing today.

No Thanks Subscribe

Already a subscriber?

Secular courts need unencumbered oaths

Editorial

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/1/2019 (483 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.

Your support has enabled us to provide free access to stories about COVID-19 because we believe everyone deserves trusted and critical information during the pandemic.

Our readership has contributed additional funding to give Free Press online subscriptions to those that can’t afford one in these extraordinary times — giving new readers the opportunity to see beyond the headlines and connect with other stories about their community.

To those who have made donations, thank you.

To those able to give and share our journalism with others, please Pay it Forward.

The Free Press has shared COVID-19 stories free of charge because we believe everyone deserves access to trusted and critical information during the pandemic.

While we stand by this decision, it has undoubtedly affected our bottom line.

After nearly 150 years of reporting on our city, we don’t want to stop any time soon. With your support, we’ll be able to forge ahead with our journalistic mission.

If you believe in an independent, transparent, and democratic press, please consider subscribing today.

We understand that some readers cannot afford a subscription during these difficult times and invite them to apply for a free digital subscription through our Pay it Forward program.

The Free Press would like to thank our readers for their patience while comments were not available on our site. We're continuing to work with our commenting software provider on issues with the platform. In the meantime, if you're not able to see comments after logging in to our site, please try refreshing the page.

You can comment on most stories on The Winnipeg Free Press website. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

By submitting your comment, you agree to abide by our Community Standards and Moderation Policy. These guidelines were revised effective February 27, 2019. Have a question about our comment forum? Check our frequently asked questions.