Good Question: Is God allowed at city hall?

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This week’s Good Question comes from an EastIdahoNews.com user who wanted to know why the phrase “So help you God” or “Under God” is not included in the oath of office for the swearing in of Idaho Falls police officers.

I checked, and he’s right.

“So help me God” is included when officers take the oath in Rexburg, Blackfoot, Pocatello and Boise.

But not in Rigby, and not in Idaho Falls.

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Here’s the oath Idaho Falls officers take:

I, ____________________, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the State of Idaho, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of ____________________ of the City of ____________________ according to the best of my ability.

After sending us the oath, Idaho Falls city spokeswoman Kerry Hammon wrote in an email, “The wording of the oath that the city uses comes from the state, so you will need to contact the state to see if there have been any changes.”

So I contacted Eric Glover, a legislative librarian in Boise. I asked if there had ever been a change, and if so, why?

He got back to me several hours later with this response:

“This is quite a confusing issue.”

According to Glover, there was a change to the state code in 1983, removing any reference to God. The original law was ruled unconstitutional by a federal court in 1965 due to confusing language. But the language that was deemed confusing was not in reference to Deity, so it’s unclear why those words were removed.

“It was for all public officers,” Glover told me.

A federal lawsuit against the state of Idaho in 1965, Heckler vs. Shepherd, defined what is meant by public officers:

“Public ‘officer’ and ‘employee’ includes every officer and employee of the state, University of Idaho, Idaho State College, every other college and every county, city, school district, and authority, including any department, division, bureau, board, commission, agency, or instrumentality of any of the foregoing.”

Does this apply to law enforcement?

“No. There was a case that said this did not apply to police officers,” Glover said. “The case said if you’re a city cop, and the city of Boise wants you to take an oath, then they come up with their own oath.”

So while it’s fine for cities to use the state oath verbatim, the evidence suggests that there is wiggle room for cities to develop and adapt the oath to their officers.

In Idaho Falls, Hammon told us that if an officer wants to include the phrase “So help me God” when he or she is sworn in, they can.

Prayer in city hall

But that got me wondering – do city council meetings in east Idaho begin with prayer?

In Pocatello, the city invites members of all faiths (or no faith) to give the invocation, according to spokesman Logan McDougall.

“An email is sent twice a year to different organizations inviting them to give the invocation. For example, city council meetings have seen the invocation given by Christians, Buddhists, Wiccans and atheists,” McDougall said in an email.

Rigby and Rexburg City Council meetings begin with a prayer, and in Boise, Council meetings start with a moment of silence rather than a formal prayer.

Prayers are not offered at Council meetings in Blackfoot and Idaho Falls.

“Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”

And, with the holiday season approaching, I checked whether cities have any policies or recommendations about employees saying “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.”

Boise, Rexburg, Rigby, Blackfoot and Pocatello all told us that they have no official statement on either term.

In Idaho Falls, Hammon said, “I am not aware of a policy that exists pertaining to the use of that exact language – ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Christmas.’ However, it is recommended that city staff use the terminology ‘Happy Holidays’ while at the workplace or when communicating on behalf of the city because it is all-inclusive, non-discriminatory and consistent with the City’s discrimination policy.”

In a follow up message, city attorney Randy Fife said:

The City doesn’t regulate or opine on personal interactions between its employees. They can refer to their beliefs and opinions with one another in conversation and can personally express themselves in a variety of ways, as long it does not lead to or constitute a hostile work environment or disrupt or interfere with the work that taxpayers and community members expect from City staff.

The City itself refrains from City-sponsored, -organized, or -generated actions or activities that may make its employees uncomfortable, feel left out, embarrassed, unappreciated, or not included. The City, as a government and an organization that seeks to remain accessible and responsive to those it represents, does not make the assumptions that City employees agree with all religious practices or expression. For those reasons and based upon case law and precedent, the City does not agree that City parties that highlight or support particular religious beliefs are appropriate.

So with that, I say Lord bless you, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Blessed Thanksgiving, Happy Holidays, Best Wishes and God be with you until next week’s Good Question.

If you have a Good Question you would like me to answer, email me: rett.nelson@eastidahonews.com.

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