July 23, 2019

Winnipeg
23° C, A few clouds

Full Forecast

Secular courts need unencumbered oaths

Editorial

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.

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.

Get the full story.
No credit card required. Cancel anytime.

Join free for 30 days

After that, pay as little as $0.99 per month for the best local news coverage in Manitoba.

 

Already a subscriber?

Log in

Keep reading free:

Already have an account? Log in here »

Subscribers Log in below to continue reading,
not a subscriber? Create an account to start a 30 day free trial.

Log in Create your account

Your free trial has come to an end.

We hope you have enjoyed your trial! To continue reading, we recommend our Read Now Pay Later membership. Simply add a form of payment and pay only 27¢ per article.

For unlimited access to the best local, national, and international news and much more, try an All Access Digital subscription:

Thank you for supporting the journalism that our community needs!

Your free trial has come to an end.

We hope you have enjoyed your trial! To continue reading, we recommend our Read Now Pay Later membership. Simply add a form of payment and pay only 27¢ per article.

For unlimited access to the best local, national, and international news and much more, try an All Access Digital subscription:

Thank you for supporting the journalism that our community needs!

We hope you have enjoyed your free trial!

To continue reading, select a plan below:

All Access Digital

Introductory pricing*

99¢

per month

  • Unlimited online reading and commenting
  • Daily newspaper replica e-Edition
  • News Break - our award-winning iOS app
  • Exclusive perks & discounts
Continue

Read Now Pay Later

Pay

27¢

per article

  • Commitment-free
  • Cancel anytime
  • Only pay for what you read
  • Refunds available
Continue

*Introductory pricing schedule for 12 month: $0.99/month plus tax for first 3 months, $5.99/month for months 4 - 6, $10.99/month for months 7 - 9, $13.99/month for months 10 - 12. Standard All Access Digital rate of $16.99/month begins after first year.

We hope you have enjoyed your free trial!

To continue reading, select a plan below:

Read Now Pay Later

Pay

27¢

per article

  • Commitment-free
  • Cancel anytime
  • Only pay for what you read
  • Refunds available
Continue

All Access Digital

Introductory pricing*

99¢

per month

  • Unlimited online reading and commenting
  • Daily newspaper replica e-Edition
  • News Break - our award-winning iOS app
  • Exclusive perks & discounts
Continue

Mon to Sat Delivery

Pay

$34.36

per month

  • Includes all benefits of All Access Digital
  • 6-day delivery of our award-winning newspaper
Continue

*Introductory pricing schedule for 12 month: $0.99/month plus tax for first 3 months, $5.99/month for months 4 - 6, $10.99/month for months 7 - 9, $13.99/month for months 10 - 12. Standard All Access Digital rate of $16.99/month begins after first year.

We hope you have enjoyed your free trial!

To continue reading, select a plan below:

All Access Digital

Introductory pricing*

99¢

per month

  • Unlimited online reading and commenting
  • Daily newspaper replica e-Edition
  • News Break - our award-winning iOS app
  • Exclusive perks & discounts
Continue

Read Now Pay Later

Pay

27¢

per article

  • Commitment-free
  • Cancel anytime
  • Only pay for what you read
  • Refunds available
Continue

*Introductory pricing schedule for 12 month: $0.99/month plus tax for first 3 months, $5.99/month for months 4 - 6, $10.99/month for months 7 - 9, $13.99/month for months 10 - 12. Standard All Access Digital rate of $16.99/month begins after first year.

We hope you have enjoyed your free trial!

To continue reading, select a plan below:

Read Now Pay Later

Pay

27¢

per article

  • Commitment-free
  • Cancel anytime
  • Only pay for what you read
  • Refunds available
Continue

All Access Digital

Introductory pricing*

99¢

per month

  • Unlimited online reading and commenting
  • Daily newspaper replica e-Edition
  • News Break - our award-winning iOS app
  • Exclusive perks & discounts
Continue

*Introductory pricing schedule for 12 month: $0.99/month plus tax for first 3 months, $5.99/month for months 4 - 6, $10.99/month for months 7 - 9, $13.99/month for months 10 - 12. Standard All Access Digital rate of $16.99/month begins after first year.

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.

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.