Defendants and witnesses in British courts will no longer swear on the Bible to tell the truth under controversial plans being considered by a powerful body of judges.
The traditional religious oath could be scrapped amid concerns that many giving evidence in criminal cases no longer take it seriously.
Instead, all witnesses and defendants would promise to tell the truth without mentioning God, and would acknowledge they could be jailed if they are caught lying.
It is claimed the new oath would be fairer for everyone and make it easier to understand the importance of what they are saying.
But critics point out non-believers already have the option of promising to tell the truth without any reference to a sacred text, and that the change would further erode Britain’s Christian heritage.
The historic change will be debated this month by the Magistrates’ Association, and if it is voted through the organisation’s influential policy committee will draw up plans to be sent to the Ministry of Justice.
Ian Abrahams, a Bristol magistrate, has proposed ending centuries of tradition by axeing the religious oath. He told The Mail on Sunday last night: ‘More and more I see people shrug their shoulders or say “whatever” when asked to take it.
‘Other witnesses think it’s wrong to swear on a holy book, and make an affirmation instead.
‘I’m suggesting we take holy books out of the process. Instead, people will have to show they understand they could be sent to prison if they don’t tell the truth.’
But it has been seen by senior figures in the Church of England as another attempt to chip away at the country’s Christian foundations.
The Rt. Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, former Bishop of Rochester, said: ‘This could be the slippery slope towards the increasing secularisation of society. Where will it end – with the Coronation Oath? The Bible is bound up with the constitution, institutions and history of this country. It is right for people to have a choice of oath, a religious or non-religious one. But we are being urged, in the name of tolerance and secularisation, to restrict that choice.’
The Rev Arun Arora, director of communications for the Church of England, added: ‘Given that the last census showed almost 60 per cent of respondents self-identified as Christians and two thirds as people of faith, this proposal seems to ignore the statistical reality that we remain a faithful nation. This kind of proposal seems driven more by blinkered campaigning agendas than abiding interests in justice and truth.’
Existing religious oaths have, for hundreds of years, required Christian witnesses to hold the Bible and state: ‘I swear by almighty God that I shall tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.’
Followers of other faiths are given copies of their sacred texts with Muslims swearing on the Koran and Jews on the Old Testament, for instance. Those who choose instead to make an affirmation are required to ‘solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm’ the truth of their evidence.
Under Mr. Abrahams’ proposal, the holy books would be removed and the oath would read: ‘I promise very sincerely to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and I understand that if I fail to do so I will be committing an offence for which I will be punished and may be sent to prison.’
The plan will be debated at the Annual General Meeting of the Magistrates’ Association, representing 23,000 lay judges, in Cardiff on October 19.