A French foreign national and green-card holder, Olga Paule Perrier-Bilbo, wants to become an American citizen but on her terms. She has lived in Massachusetts since 2000.
She claims her dream of becoming a U.S. citizen rests on her not wanting to say four simple words: “So help me God.”
The First Amendment reads –
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Perrier-Bilbo, an atheist, says the phrase “So help me God” to the United States’ citizenship oath is unconstitutional and violates her religious freedom.
So to maintain her dreams on her terms she filed a federal lawsuit.
“Accordingly, the current oath violates the first 10 words of the Bill of Rights, and to participate in a ceremony which violates that key portion of the United States Constitution is not supporting of defending the constitution as the oath demands,” the lawsuit says.
A modified oath was offered to Perrier-Bilbo, but she wasn’t going to have any of that. She claimed it sort of hurts her feelings and makes her feel less of a full U.S. citizen.
“By placing a religious statement (to which Plaintiff does not adhere) into the Oath of Naturalization, and then forcing Plaintiff to use an alternative oath (so that she must feel less than a new citizen), Defendants substantially burden Plaintiff in her exercise of religion,” the suit claims.
It’s uncertain how the courts will go, but one case in 2000 may signal a problematic road for Perrier-Bilbo’s lawsuit.
In that case, the court ruled in favor of governments and religious advocates. The lawsuit was filed by Michael Newdow who was upset that his child was forced to say “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Supreme Court ruled that the teacher leading students in the pledge did not violate the child’s First Amendment.
Newdow has also filed unsuccessful lawsuits to remove the phrase “In God We Trust” from American currency and prevent “So help me God” from being included in the Presidential oath of office.
“Courts generally have not been receptive to this in the context of the Pledge of Allegiance,” suggested dean of Berkeley Law Erwin Chemerinsky, an expert on the First Amendment.
The federal government approved Perrier-Bilbo request to be naturalized offering her to either participate in a citizenship ceremony without saying the phrase or become a citizen through a private ceremony which uses a modified phrase. Neither options were satisfactory.