Motion to end Bible oaths in court defeated

By Robert Pigott
Religious affairs correspondent

image captionPeople in court will continue to swear an oath on the Bible should they choose to

A proposal to end the swearing of oaths on the Bible and other holy books in courts in England and Wales has been rejected by magistrates.

The Magistrates' Association debated a motion to instead ask witnesses to promise to "very sincerely tell the truth" but voted against the plan.

Supporters argued many people have become indifferent to the Bible.

But opponents, including church leaders, believe it strengthens the value of witnesses' evidence.

For centuries, magistrates have dispensed justice in England and Wales, and relied on the Bible to force people to tell them the truth.

Its moral force was unquestioned, placing intense pressure on witnesses to tell the truth.

The oath, still sworn by witnesses and defendants as they hold a holy book, has given the English language one of its most familiar sentences.

"I swear by Almighty God [to tell] the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

Other faiths can take the oath on other books - Muslims on the Koran, Jews on the Old Testament, for example.

Atheists are allowed to "solemnly, sincerely and truly affirm" instead of swearing.

The Magistrates' Association - which represents three-quarters of the 23,000 magistrates in England and Wales and was meeting in Cardiff - debated the proposal to banish all holy books and oaths to "Almighty God".

'Sent to prison'

The plan was put forward by a Bristol magistrate, Ian Abrahams, who claims many people are no more likely to tell the truth after using it to swear an oath.

He believes what is needed is a greater sense of how seriously lying in court is treated.

Mr Abrahams' alternative oath would include an acknowledgement of the duty to tell the truth.

"I understand that if I fail to do so, I will be committing an offence for which I will be punished and may be sent to prison."

His plan was opposed by other lawyers, such as Nick Freeman, a solicitor who often represents clients in magistrates' courts.

"Evidence must be strengthened if people swear on religious texts," said Mr Freeman.

"The way you stamp out lying under oath is to punish people who do so, not to get rid of the religious oath.

"By changing it you are depriving people with a religious faith of the chance to reinforce their evidence by swearing on their religious text."

Secular promise

Church leaders have also spoken out against any change, insisting that Christian belief is still widespread and the Bible has considerable meaning for many who give evidence in court.

They point out that there is already a non-religious "affirmation" that can be sworn by people who choose to do so.

Earlier this year, the Guides decided to strip all religious content from the promise made by its members and replace it with an entirely secular one.

But earlier this month, the Scouts opted to keep their pledge to "do my duty to God" and simply to introduce an alternative version for non-believers.

Had the motion been passed, it would probably have needed the approval of parliament to bring the change about.

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