(CNSNews.com) - Religious conservatives are concerned that the recent removal of the phrase "so help me God" from the oath given to witnesses during confirmation hearings held for several Bush nominees since the Democratic takeover of the Senate, is evidence of the Democratic Party's hostility towards religion.
The controversy came to light following an executive session of the Senate Judiciary Committee held on Thursday, August 2, 2001, in which Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) protested the omission of the phrase to Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
Sessions noted that he and his staff had observed this practice during Judiciary Committee meetings.
"I can only conclude that this is another example of the secularization of American public life," he said in a statement. "There seems to be no end to the obsession by some to eradicate any reference to a higher being from public discourse."
Sessions' staff noted that Democrats had omitted the phrase during the confirmation hearings for judicial nominees, including William Riley, Sam Haddon, and Richard Cebull, and for Justice Department nominees John Ashcroft, Sarah Hart, Deborah Daniels, Asa Hutchinson and Robert Mueller.
Nominees in other committees have also been sworn in with the phrase "so help me God" omitted, including Secretary of Energy designee Spencer Abraham (Energy committee), Secretary of Veterans' Affairs designee Anthony Principi (Veterans' Affairs Committee), and Secretary of Interior designee Gale Norton (Energy Committee).
David Carle, a Leahy spokesman explained that the phrase was not mandatory, saying, "There is no formal oath of office for committees."
According to Carle, the phrase was omitted in five of the last eight Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings by mistake rather than according to plan, but, he added, the phrase would definitely be used uniformly in the future.
Leahy denied that the omission of the phrase was a consequence of an anti-religious attitude on his part: "If anyone is suggesting that this Irish-Italian-Catholic chairman of the Judiciary committee is against religion, they are either totally biased or ignorant of my background," he said in a statement
Concerned Women for America (CWA) charged that Leahy's actions do show an anti-religious attitude despite his claims to the contrary.
"Senator Leahy is using an old tactic of acting offended, rather than dealing with the issue itself," CWA Communications Director Wendy Wright said.
"He should give an explanation to why 'so help me God' was taken out, but more importantly he needs to acknowledge that there is a higher authority than Sen. Leahy or even the US government," Wright added.
She said the omission was disturbing, because it "shows the arrogance of the Senate Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee," in their quickness to change rules and procedures that are designed to protect the integrity of the American system.
"The oath that includes 'so help me God' is [not] just about personal beliefs," Wright said. "It's about honoring authority and American tradition."
She views the actions of Leahy and other Democrats as part of an effort "to try to sanitize God out of American history, [and] out of any public expression of God.
"It appears that the Democrats are spending all their attention and time in sanitizing God out of the process rather than paying attention to things like the emergency situation in our federal court system," Wright said.
She charged that the omission of the phrase "so help me God" establishes the religion of humanism in American public life because it makes the person subject to men rather than God.
Toward Tradition Executive Director Yarden Weidenfeld said Leahy's actions reinforce the perception that many religious conservatives have, that the Democratic Party is hostile toward Judeo-Christian beliefs.
He sees the omission as an example of what happens when the principle of "tolerance" is taken too far.
"When you take a principle like tolerance to an extreme like that, the whole basis of a civilized society, namely God, is thrown out," Wiedenfeld said. "They kind of have their principles confused.
"Recognizing God in civil proceedings is not establishing a church, it is like the foundation of the ability to carry on a civilized society," he said. "It is a certain form of arrogance, because I think that a lot of people in the elites don't understand how central God is to most Americans."
While religious conservatives were dismayed by Leahy's actions, the group, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, was pleased.
"I think that Sen. Leahy and his staff were on the right track," said Americans United spokesman Steve Benen. "They were working to make the swearing-in process a secular process, which is as it should be."
Benen argues that the Judiciary Committee serves a secular non-religious purpose, and forcing a witness to swear, "so help me God" serves an irrelevant purpose.
"Leaving out God does not promote atheism," he said. "[Rather,] it is just making a secular pledge to tell the truth.
"Penalties would apply equally just as they would beforehand. This doesn't change anything other than making everything more inclusive," Benen said.