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Since You Asked

Why did Wednesday's paper take such great pains to quote the presidential oath of office on the front page, but see fit to leave out "so help me God"?

— John G., Medford

Well, John, it was either because:

1. We are godless heathens, or

2. The words "so help me God" are not part of the oath.

The answer is ... drum roll ... No. 2 — the use of the words "so help me God" have been added by many presidents, but they are not part of the official oath, which is specified in Article II, Section 1, of the Constitution. It reads:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."

There is no legal restriction on the use of the "so help me God" phrase, but there have been legal challenges. Atheist Michael Newdow filed a federal lawsuit in the District of Columbia on Dec. 30 to try to block the use of the phrase. The suit focused on the words spoken by the administrator, in this case Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, saying he must conform to the exact 35 words of the Constitution. A court denied his plea for an injunction.

Some reports say George Washington was the first to use the words "so help me God" in the oath, but many historians say there is no evidence that occurred.

The U.S. Senate Historical Office says the first eyewitness documentation of a president saying "so help me God" is an account of Chester Arthur's Sept. 22, 1881, inauguration in the New York Times.

The oath actually has been taken in two ways. In the earlier form, the chief justice sometimes would state the oath as a question ("Do you, John Adams, solemnly swear ...") and the president-about-to-be would simply reply "I do."

In the current form, both the chief justice and the president recite the oath.

People take this oath business seriously, John. Because both Chief Justice Roberts and President Barack Obama got the words slightly wrong, they reconvened Wednesday night at the White House for a do-over.

No one seems entirely sure that was necessary, since the Constitution also specifies that the candidate elected president assumes the office at noon on Inauguration Day. We suspect they figured better safe than sorry, although Obama told reporters they decided to do it over "because it was so much fun" the first time.

Two other previous presidents have repeated the oath because of similar issues, Calvin Coolidge and Chester A. Arthur.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to youasked@mailtribune.com. We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.