The lawsuit, initiated by groups of U.S. atheists and humanists, also wants an end to the practice of prayer and invocations at public events.
“We think the law is on our side,” Bob Ritter, an attorney for the American Humanist Association, was quoted as saying by the Washington Post, citing what he said are clear U.S. constitutional dictates.
Among the claims of the lawsuit, announced on December 29, is that the phrase “so help me God,” which has been used at least since the time of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, is not specifically mentioned as part of the presidential oath prescribed by the U.S. Constitution.
Historians are divided as to whether earlier U.S. presidents, including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, used the phrase.
Among those pressing the lawsuit in District Court in Washington, D.C., is Michael Newdow, an attorney who has lost several similar high-profile lawsuits in the past. These included efforts to prevent references to God being used during the 2001 and 2005 inaugural ceremonies of President George W. Bush.
Scott Walter, executive director of the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said it opposed the suit and called Newdow’s effort a publicity stunt.
“Newdow’s lawsuit over the inauguration is a lot like the streaker at the Super Bowl: a pale, self-absorbed distraction,” Walter said in a December 30 statement. “And anybody who looks at it carefully can see there’s not much there.”
The lawsuit is the latest religious controversy surrounding the Obama inaugural ceremony.
Gay activists have criticized the president-elect for asking a well-known U.S. evangelical pastor, Rick Warren, an opponent of same-sex marriage, to deliver prayers at the January 20 ceremony.