June 11, 2014 at 1:00 am

Shelby Township allows 'so help me God' in oaths

Clerk Stanley T. Grot swears in part-time clerk typist Laura White in the City Council chambers Tuesday. White chose to say, 'So help me God.' (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

Shelby Township— The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing prayers before public meetings has prompted one Metro Detroit clerk to add a call to a higher power to the township’s oath of office.

Shelby Township Clerk Stanley Grot won approval from the board of trustees to give officeholders the option of ending their sworn oath with “so help me God.”

Supporters say the move is a return to Judeo-Christian principals that conservatives like Grot say the country was built upon. But opponents say it needs to be clear to those taking an oath that includes phrases invoking guidance from a religious being is optional. Making it mandatory would cross the line separating church and state.

Grot said the phrase is a common conclusion to oaths such as the Oath of Enlistment for the military and presidential inaugurations. And “In God We Trust” appears on U.S. currency, so why not evoke God’s name during a local oath of office?

“I think we need to bring God back to what we are doing,” Grot said. “Invoking His name is helpful, in my opinion.”

He said the phrase was taken out of the oath because of political correctness.

“It dawned on me, I almost automatically started saying ‘so help me God’ but it wasn’t in there. We revisited it and there it is,” he said.

Grot became clerk in 2012.

“So help me God” is not an official part of the President’s Oath of Office but has been said by most presidents.

So long as the oath is optional there’s no legal issue, said Richard Primus, law professor at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor.

“It is not unconstitutional to permit people to add those words or any other words after the oath,” Primus said. “In fact, most federal officials, including presidents, usually do, but they are not required to and they can’t be legally required to. But, it is common practice that people do it.”

The First Amendment prohibits requiring people to profess a particular religious belief to hold office. The clause in Article 6 of the Constitution says no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification of people holding office in the United States.

In Torcaso v. Watkins, the Supreme Court reaffirmed in 1961 that the Constitution prohibits states and the federal government from requiring any kind of religious test for public office.

Michigan’s constitution has a similar prohibition for public officers and employment: “No other oath, affirmation or any religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust.”

Many municipalities don’t include “so help me God” in their oaths.

Deputy City Clerk of Roseville Jennifer Zelmanski said it’s not part of that city’s oath.

J. Cherilynn Brown, Ferndale clerk, said it uses the oath exactly as it is in the state’s constitution, which doesn’t conclude “so help me God.”

Brown said Article 11, Section 1 of the oath of public officers asks one to swear or affirm that they will support both the U.S. and the state’s constitutions.

Detroit doesn’t include “so help me God” in its oath of office.

Grot said his decision to amend the township’s oath of office was inspired by the U. S. Supreme Court’s ruling in May, that it is OK to conduct a prayer before a public meeting.

“The Supreme Court today is relatively friendly to religious expression in governmental places,” Primus said.

An informal poll of 50 Michigan communities in November 2013 found 38 percent did some type of invocation or prayer at their council or board meeting in the previous 12 months, according to the Michigan Municipal League.

Prior to the Supreme Court ruling on this issue, the League suggested member communities consult with their village or city attorneys, said Matt Bach, spokesman for the league.

“We also suggested that governing bodies could have a prayer or invocation at a public meeting as long as it didn’t promote one particular religion,” he said.

Grot is running for state representative in District 36, and the move to insert a reference to God into the oath could be seen as a way to gain support. The district includes most of Shelby, as well as Washington and Bruce townships and the village of Romeo. Grot is running against lawyer Peter J. Lucido.

“He’s running in a Republican primary (Aug. 5); that’s the key,” said Bill Ballenger associate editor of Inside Michigan Politics newsletter. “That district is all about winning the Republican primary. If you win the Republican primary, you are going to be elected in November.

“Grot, I think, realizes that there is a disproportionally large amount of Christian conservatives in his district (who) are going to be voting in the Republican primary. This is something that he can show to these voters, that he’s on their side. Every little bit helps, absolutely.”

Grot said that isn’t his motivation.

“I timed this based on the U.S. Supreme Court decision, not on the race,” Grot said. “I am going to be accused no matter what I do. The campaign is outside of this forum. Actually every day before I do campaigning I say a little prayer. It is just me. I am not imposing my religion on anybody. It is optional. If anybody has an issue, skip that part.”

Grot uses the oath when swearing in police and fire hires, members of boards and commissions and elections workers.

On Tuesday Grot swore in Laura White, a part-time clerk typist, who started her job four weeks ago.

Grot asked White to raise her right hand repeat after him and made it clear that “so help me God” was optional.

White of Shelby Township said she had no problem uttering the phrase.

“My faith in Jesus Christ and God is very important to me. And as a public servant, I have no problem adding that on to my oath,” she said. “It is an option, and it is an option I chose.”

uwatson@detroitnews.com
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