This week’s swearing-in of Long Beach’s newly-elected officials was marked by talks of the broad diversity on the new City Council; however, there was one common factor between almost all of the oaths of office taken that night. All of them were taken while the oath-taker placed their left hand on a Bible—except one.

Newly minted 3rd District Councilmember Suzie Price was the only elected official that night who swore on the document she was promising to uphold—the Constitution.

Her response when I had expressed that I was impressed by her choice to swear upon the Constitution was simple and eloquent: “I just believe in the separation and believe that the Constitution binds us all—regardless of race, religion, lifestyle or gender. I’m not here to judge others for their choice. Just care deeply about my own choices.”

While avoiding religion in public office or flat-out admitting one is an atheist remains the so-called “last taboo” in politics (and it would still be difficult to win the Presidency as an atheist), religion has never been a requirement to hold office in the US. Article VI clearly states that “… No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

It follows, then, that there is no legal reason why public servants in the US swear in while placing their hand on the Bible; it is simply a tradition started by George Washington at his inauguration, which has remained largely unbroken since. While Thomas Jefferson was a vocal supporter of the “wall of separation between Church and State,” as he interpreted the First Amendment, records of the inaugurations up until John Tyler are hazy at best. However, according to his own recollection of his inauguration, John Quincy Adams was the first to buck the trend, choosing to take his oath while placing his hand on a book of US laws. 

Adams, though a deeply religious man, believed in the separation of church and state and recognized that his job was to uphold the law of the land above all others. Theodore Roosevelt did not use a bible when he was sworn in after the assassination of President William McKinley, however, he’s never stated a reason for this, and he did use a bible when he was sworn in as Governor of New York, and again when he was sworn in to his second term as President.

When I had lamented on social media about the absurdity of swearing on a non-legal religious text (which essentially has no direct correlation to the oath one is taking) in this day and age, one local who is involved in politics empathetically pointed out: “To each their own, I say. It’s their moment and I won’t judge that.”

But that’s the precise problem; this isn’t their moment, it’s the voting public’s moment. It is the moment where those elected are recognized for gaining the voters’ trust in one thing alone, which is upholding the law to best serve them—and “them” consists of people with varying beliefs, Christian and non-Christian, religious and secular, the philosophically-minded and the scientific.

This isn’t to downsize religious belief; in the kind words of the local quoted above, the privacy of your spiritual and philosophical life is precisely “to each their own.” However, this is public service, where one’s religious belief—at least, according to the founding fathers and the documents by which we run this country—can inspire but doesn’t dictate public service. The difficulty with genuine, authentic public service is the fact that you have to set aside your personal beliefs while committing to uphold Constitutional and State law; no easy task. In fact, it is a task that is continually unfulfilled by politicians across the country who put their beliefs before law.

Of course, many will argue that someone placing their hand on the Bible ensures the binding nature of the oath because they’re putting the full force of their faith behind their oath. Nixon, a Quaker, proved this isn’t always the case. The Constitution is unquestionably clear that its words—not that of any other literature or text—“shall be the supreme law of the land.”

So why would an elected official swear upon any other text? You wouldn’t see a priest put his hand on the Constitution while taking an oath to the church. It’s non-sequitur, and it’s as baffling as it is eyebrow-raising, whether or not it is tradition. If your fidelity to any code is stronger than your fidelity to the code you’re swearing to uphold, go serve that code in the best capacity you can.

Obviously, there’s a larger discussion at hand in that any person who takes office in this country who doesn’t (at least act like they) believe in some form of the common Christian religion is castigated, as contrary as that may be to the to the principles upon which this country was founded. 

But that’s a whole other discussion, right? For now, let’s just ignore Article VI, Adams’ loyalty to serving the law over his own personal life as a religious man, and the incongruous image we advertise by just letting elected officials “have their moment.”