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DA defends imprisonment of disabled vet for marijuana charges

Brandon Moseley

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Sean Worsley (VIA ALABAMA APPLESEED)

West Alabama District Attorney Andy Hamlin defended the court decision to revoke Sean Worsley’s probation, sending the Black disabled veteran to state prison for 60 months on felony marijuana charges. Hamlin spoke to APR in a phone interview about the case.

Sean Worsley is a Black disabled veteran who was arrested on felony marijuana charges in Gordo in Pickens County in August 2016.

Advocates for marijuana legalization, sentencing reform and for veterans have denounced Worsley’s treatment by the Alabama court system. On April 28 a circuit judge in Alabama revoked the Arizona man’s Alabama probation, so he faces spending 60 months of his life as a guest of the Alabama Department of Corrections.

Hamlin is the district attorney for Alabama’s Fourth Judicial Circuit, which includes Fayette, Lamar and Pickens counties.

“One thing that is being lost in this is that he was noncompliant,” Hamlin said.

Hamlin said that Worsley was dismissed from the VA drug treatment program because he was noncompliant with the conditions of the program. That Worsley receive drug treatment for his marijuana addiction was a condition of his probation agreement.

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“He would not conform. That is my understanding,” Hamlin said.

Under Alabama law, possession of more than 2.2 pounds of marijuana is trafficking, a felony. Hamlin had considerably less than that. In non-trafficking cases there are several options that a person can be charged with. A key designation is whether the marijuana is “for personal use” or “for other than personal use.” In Worsley’s case, the arresting officer in Gordo made the determination that Worsley’s marijuana was for “other than personal use.”

Hamlin said that the arresting officer made the correct determination based on the evidence. In addition to the marijuana, Worsley had scales for measuring the marijuana and paper for rolling his own joints. The marijuana had also been removed from the prescription bottle it came in and been repackaged.

Hamlin said that the marijuana was for other than personal use was “a finding of fact. The charge was substantiated not only by the evidence; but it was spoken by the defendant in open court.” Hamlin is referring to Worsley’s admission of guilt when he pleaded guilty.

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Worsley and his wife Eboni maintain that the marijuana was bought legally in Arizona, where Worsley had a valid medical marijuana card.

APR asked if Alabama should be locking people up for five years for something that is legal in 33 states.

“We don’t make the law, we enforce it,” Hamlin said of his job as district attorney. “If you want to change the law, then run for the Legislature.”

APR asked why Worsley was charged with a Class C felony rather than another possible charge. Hamlin said that because it was a finding of fact that the marijuana was for other than personal use, it did not qualify to be treated as a Class D felony (which would have avoided imprisonment) or a Class A misdemeanor which could have brought a sentence of six months in the Pickens County jail. Hamlin maintained that under the sentencing guidelines, the Class C felony is the appropriate charge and is the charge it would have brought before the state passed sentencing reform in 2016.

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. Ward sponsored the sentencing reform legislation in 2016. He disagrees with the sentence and called it “egregious.”

Ward said that wording giving law enforcement the power to determine whether the marijuana was “for personal use” or was for “other than personal use” was already in Alabama law. The sentencing reform did not add that — but did not change that.

Hamlin said that Worsley was indicted by a Pickens County Grand Jury. APR asked how many Black people were on the grand jury. Hamlin said that he could not remember and it would be a violation of the secrecy of the grand jury process to share that.

Leah Nelson with Alabama Appleseed wrote a lengthy recap of the Worsley case. In it, Eboni Worsley argues that she has had to assume the role of Sean Worsley’s guardian following his being wounded in the Iraq War and his post-traumatic stress disorder.

APR asked Hamlin if he had a professional evaluate Worsley’s competency to stand trial and to enter into that plea agreement.

“No, because it was never alleged that he was not competent to stand trial,” Hamlin said. “He was very cognizant and coherent. If I thought he was entering a plea involuntarily I would not have gone through with it.”

“An assessment has never been done,” Hamlin said, because the defense never asked for it. It is up to the defense to request that.

APR asked if Worsley had competent legal counsel.

Hamlin said that Worsley was represented not only by a court appointed attorney, but his family hired an attorney out of Birmingham to represent him.

APR asked: this all began in 2016 when Chris McCool was the DA. He is now on the Criminal Court of Appeals. Did you inherit this case from the previous DA?

Hamlin said that he was the assistant DA under McCool and actually handled this case then. While DA, like judge, is an elected position in Alabama, Hamlin was appointed DA to fill the vacancy by Gov. Kay Ivey.

“He went to prison out of a probation revocation,” Hamlin said. “If he had gotten into some kind of treatment we absolutely would not be here.”

“This was the last resort with his probation revocation,” Hamlin said. “Talk to his Arizona probation officer. The reason we are here is because of his actions.”

“I am sympathetic with the situation,” Hamlin insisted.

APR said that we talked with a PTSD counselor on Monday who said that many of his clients with PTSD use marijuana to self-medicate their symptoms.

“I have great respect for him and his service, but the rule of law has to be maintained,” Hamlin told APR.

APR asked: some have suggested that Worsley received worse treatment from the court system than a white person would.

“That is an absolute pile of crap,” Hamlin said. “That is ridiculous and insulting that they would even say that.”

APR asked if Hamlin has sent anybody else to state prison on felony marijuana charges.

“Yes, I have,” Hamlin said.

Hamlin shared the court order revoking Worsley’s probation:

“The Defendant admitted violating the terms of his/her probation as alleged by the State. The Court further notes that this was the Defendant’s 4th felony conviction. The Defendant was previously allowed to participate in a drug rehabilitation program but refused to comply with program requirements and had failed to report to probation for over two years. Upon consideration of the evidence presented by the State at the Defendant’s probation revocation hearing, the Court finds the above-named Defendant to be in violation of the above listed probation condition(s) and the Court is reasonably satisfied from the evidence that a violation of the conditions or regulations of probation occurred as specified in the Order of Probation, of which the Defendant has received a written copy. Accordingly, the Defendant’s probation is hereby REVOKED. The Defendant shall receive credit for all time served on this charge. DONE this 28th day of April, 2020.”

Chey Garrigan is the chief executive director of the Alabama Cannabis Industry Association. Garrigan said that Worsley should not spend years of his life in Alabama’s dangerous and overcrowded prison system.

“The events that led to the imprisonment of Sean Worley, is NOT the FOCUS!” Garrigan said. “The focus is Alabama needs a medical cannabis program to include: the immediate release of non-violent offenders with any type of marijuana charges.”

“Sean Worsley matters,” Garrigan said. “A medical cannabis program in Alabama will boost the economy and create high paying jobs. If Alabama had a medical cannabis program, he would most likely not be imprisoned today.”

Garrigan is urging the court to commute the remainder of Worsley’s sentence and release him on time served.

Ward estimates that out of the 23,000 inmates in the Alabama Department of Corrections, 60 or 70 are there for marijuana charges only. Most of those are for trafficking.

Michael Fritz is the general counsel for the ALCIA.

“The ALCIA is fighting to allow those already suffering to have access to proper medication without the fear of becoming a felon,” Fritz said. “Sean Worsley is a prime example of why we are fighting. Medical Marijuana can help our veterans that suffer from PTSD, anxiety as well as pain from physically disabilities.”

Hamlin said that Worsley now has six felony convictions in multiple states.

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Prosecution accepts misdemeanor plea in high-profile environmental administrator’s case 

The plea deal came shortly before Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Stephen C. Wallace was to hear arguments on selective and vindictive prosecution.

Bill Britt

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Almost two years ago, Trump administration EPA Region 4 Administrator Onis “Trey” Glenn III was charged with more than a dozen state felony ethics violations. On Monday, he pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges after reaching a plea agreement with the prosecution.

The plea deal came shortly before Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Stephen C. Wallace was to hear arguments on selective and vindictive prosecution.

According to a statement from the Ethics Commission at the time, Glenn, along with former Alabama Environmental Management Commissioner Scott Phillips, was charged after a Jefferson County grand jury returned indictments against the two on Nov. 9, 2018, according to a statement from the Ethics Commission.

Rather than moving forward with the case, prosecutors dropped the felony charges against Glenn. They opted to reach an agreement to accept a plea on three counts of “unintentional” violations of the ethics code. Glenn received a two-year suspended sentence for his actions.

“In the interest of efficiency, we were pleased to take advantage of the opportunity to resolve this matter,” Glenn’s attorney Matt Hart told APR when reached for comment. “My client pleaded to unintentional, misdemeanor violations of the ethics law, and the matter is concluded.”

Questions surround the prosecution’s decision to settle the case for a confession to minor offensives in such a high profile case. Still, from the beginning, the case was marred by allegations that the Alabama Ethics Commission’s lawyers had mishandled the investigation and indictments.

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Indictments against Glenn and Phillips were reported by AL.com even before the pair was arrested or served with the indictments. In AL.com’s report, Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Albritton said that then-Jefferson County District Attorney Mike Anderton had requested the Ethics Commission help indict the two men.

As first reported by APR, shortly after Glenn and Phillips’ indictments, Albritton and his team’s actions raised serious questions about the process that led to charges against the two men. APR reported that Albritton and Ethics Commission lawyer Cynthia Propst Raulston approached Anderton, and he did not request help with the case from the commission, as was reported in AL.com.

Later, APR confirmed that the Ethics Commission approached Anderton, contradicting Albritton’s public statement. In a sworn statement given on Feb. 9, 2019, Anderton said it was Ethics Commission lawyers who approached him, as first reported by APR in November of last year.

According to Anderton, in the fall of 2018, Propst Raulston approached him because “she had a case she wanted to present to the Jefferson County Grand Jury.”

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He further states, “I told Ms. Raulston that I would facilitate her appearance before the grand jury but that my office did not have the resources to support her case. I also told her that she would have to prosecute the case herself.”

These and other aberrations came into sharper focus when Hart — the state’s most famous prosecutor of his generation turned defense attorney — began diving into the particulars of the prosecution’s case.

Glenn’s defense argued from the start that procedural process was circumvented when Albritton and Propst Raulston took the complaint directly to a grand jury rather than the Ethics Commission as prescribed by the Legislature.

An ethics commissioner told APR privately that the commission was never informed about a complaint against the two men, nor was the investigation.

According to internal sources, actions taken by Albritton and Propst Raulston created turmoil at the commission and raised a question about who would prosecute the case on the state’s behalf.

During the process, Albritton, Propst Raulston, and other attorneys for the commission asked the attorney general’s office to take over the case; however, according to sources within the office, the AG turned them down after a review found “statutory problems” with how the case against Glenn and Phillips was handled.

In a motion to dismiss, the defense said, “In sum, the Ethics Commission Staff trampled Mr. Glenn’s rights in obtaining the indictment without giving him his required notice and an opportunity to be heard as required by the Alabama Ethics Act, and then after indictment denied him notice as guaranteed by the Grand Jury Secrecy Act and failed to protect his presumption of innocence as required by the Rules of Professional Conduct.”

While not explicitly noted in the motion to dismiss, the relationship between environmental group GASP and the prosecution was a subject that would have been heard in the hearing on selective and vindictive prosecution.

Immediately following Glenn and Phillips’ indictment, GASP posted a celebratory tweet, even taking credit for the indictment.

Former GASP director Stacie Propst is the sister of Ethics Commission lawyer Propst Raulston who presented the case to the Jefferson County grand jury.

While many in the environmental community celebrated Glenn’s indictment, the defense argued the prosecution took an illegal short cut to indict him, which denied Glenn due process and amounted to selective and vindictive prosecution.

Monday’s plea agreement ended the two-year drama without further exposure as to what happened behind the scene. Phillips’s case is still pending.

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U.S. Supreme Court rules Alabama can ban curbside voting

“The District Court’s modest injunction is a reasonable accommodation, given the short time before the election,” the three dissenting justices wrote. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Supreme Court, in a 5-3 decision, allowed Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill to ban curbside voting, staying a district court injunction that had allowed some counties to offer curbside voting in the Nov. 3 election amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Supreme Court’s majority in its order declined to write an opinion, but Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonya Sotomayor’s five-page dissent is included.

The lawsuit — filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Southern Poverty Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Alabama and Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program — was brought on behalf of several older Alabamians with underlying medical conditions.

“The District Court’s modest injunction is a reasonable accommodation, given the short time before the election,” the three dissenting justices wrote. 

Sotomayor, who wrote the dissent, closed using the words of one of the plaintiffs in the case. 

“Plaintiff Howard Porter Jr., a Black man in his seventies with asthma and Parkinson’s disease, told the District Court, ‘[So] many of my [ancestors] even died to vote. And while I don’t mind dying to vote, I think we’re past that – We’re past that time,’” Sotomayor wrote. 

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Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill on Wednesday applauded the Supreme Court’s decision. 

“I am proud to report the U.S. Supreme Court has now blocked a lower court’s order allowing the fraudulent practice of curbside voting in the State of Alabama,” Merrill said in a statement. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have worked diligently with local election officials in all 67 counties to offer safe and secure voting methods – including through the in-person and mail-in processes. I am glad the Supreme Court has recognized our actions to expand absentee voting, while also maintaining the safeguards put into place by the state Legislature.”

“The fact that we have already shattered voter participation records with the election still being 13 days away is proof that our current voting options are easy, efficient, and accessible for all of Alabama’s voters,” Merrill continued. “Tonight’s ruling in favor of election integrity and security is once again a win for the people of Alabama.”

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, expressed frustration after the ruling in a tweet.

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“Another devastating loss for voters and a blow for our team fighting to ensure safe voting for Black and disabled voters in Alabama. With no explanation, the SCOTUS allows Alabama to continue making it as hard as possible for COVID-vulnerable voters,” Ifill wrote.

Curbside voting is not explicitly banned by state law in Alabama, but Merrill has argued that because the practice is not addressed in the law, he believes it to be illegal. 

A panel of federal appeals court judges on Oct. 13 reversed parts of U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon’s Sept. 30 order ruling regarding absentee voting in the upcoming Nov. 3 elections, but the judges let the previous ruling allowing curbside voting to stand. 

In his Sept. 30 ruling, Kallon wrote that “the plaintiffs have proved that their fears are justified” and the voting provisions challenged in the lawsuit “unduly burden the fundamental Constitutional rights of Alabama’s most vulnerable voters and violate federal laws designed to protect America’s most marginalized citizens.”

Caren Short, SPLC’s senior staff attorney, in a statement said the Supreme Court’s decision has curtailed the voting rights of vulnerable Alabamians.

“Once again, the Supreme Court’s ‘shadow docket’ – where orders are issued without written explanation – has curtailed the voting rights of vulnerable citizens amidst a once-in-a-century public health crisis. After a two-week trial, a federal judge allowed counties in Alabama to implement curbside voting so that high-risk voters could avoid crowded polling locations,” Short said. “Tonight’s order prevents Alabama counties from even making that decision for themselves. Already common in states across the South and the country before 2020, curbside voting is a practice now encouraged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It should be a no-brainer to implement everywhere during a pandemic; the Alabama Secretary of State unfortunately disagrees, as does the Supreme Court of the United States.”

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Sean Worsley, Black disabled veteran arrested for medical marijuana, gets parole

The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles granted Worsley parole on Wednesday.

Brandon Moseley

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Sean Worsley (VIA ALABAMA APPLESEED)

Sean Worsley, the disabled Black veteran who spent eight months incarcerated for possession of legally prescribed medical marijuana, has been released on parole.

The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles granted parole on Wednesday for Worsley. Worsley served in the Iraq War where he received a Purple Heart. Unfortunately, he also returned from the war with injuries and chronic PTSD, which he treated with legally prescribed marijuana in his home state of Arizona.

In 2016, Worsley and his wife were driving through Alabama on their way to visit relatives in North Carolina, when they stopped for gas in Gordo. The Worsleys were apparently playing their music too loud so were approached by a Gordo police officer for violating the Gordo noise ordinance.

The Worsleys granted the officer’s request to search the vehicle. He found the marijuana, which Worsley claimed was legally prescribed.

Medical marijuana is legal in most of the country, but not in the state of Alabama. While Worsley did not have enough marijuana in his possession for a trafficking charge, the arresting officer charged him with possession of marijuana for other than personal use, a felony in Alabama. The assistant district attorney prosecuting the case agreed.

Worsley agreed to a five-year probation, including drug treatment, as part of a plea deal to avoid prison in 2017. Worsley claims that the VA would not let him get their drug treatment because he does not have a problem.

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The district attorney’s office in Alabama told APR that Worsley was kicked out of the VA for failure to comply with the program. Alabama ordered Worsley to appear in court in Pickens County. Worsley claims that he did not know about this court date. The court charged him with failure to appear, revoked his probation, and declared him a fugitive from justice.

Worsley was arrested in Arizona for possession of marijuana with an expired medical marijuana card.

Alabama asked that Worsley be extradited back to Pickens County where he was jailed. The trial judge ordered the disabled veteran to serve the full five years in prison. Due to the incredible overcrowding of the Alabama Department of Corrections and the coronavirus crisis, ADOC could not find the space for him, so left him in the Pickens County Jail for five months.

Worsley spent the last three months with ADOC in the aging Draper Correctional Facility. Worsley was denied Community Corrections because he has a nonviolent felony record in 2011 in addition to his Alabama offense.

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Civil libertarians, marijuana advocates, veterans advocates and justice reform advocates were horrified by Worsley’s treatment by the Alabama court system after Alabama Appleseed’s Research Director Leah Nelson first publicized the case.

Worsley’s bid for parole was supported by a coalition of advocates and service providers, including John Carroll, a retired federal magistrate judge and Vietnam War veteran who now teaches at the Cumberland School of Law; Beau Armistead, a Birmingham-based counselor who specializes in treating veterans like Worsley who live with PTSD and has offered to treat Worsley pro bono on his release; BLOX LLC, an architecture and manufacturing firm that has offered Worsley a job; the Dannon Project, a re-entry provider that will help guide Worsley’s transition out of prison; and dozens of veterans who signed a letter to the Parole Board supporting Worsley’s release.

Online supporters raised over $100,000 to cover legal costs and other financial consequences of his conviction, including his wife Eboni Worsley’s move to Birmingham.

“Sean Worsley, was shown compassion by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles,” said Chey Lindsey Garrigan, executive director of the Alabama Cannabis Industry Association. “This is a commendable act that should be acknowledged.”

Garrigan’s group is lobbying the Alabama legislature to legalize medical marijuana in the state and to guarantee safe passage for travelers from other states, where marijuana is legal so that other visitors are not at risk of being jailed while passing through Alabama.

“My faith in THE MOST HIGH has been further solidified in the demonstration of the law functioning in Alabama to help and not harm individuals via the parole board,” Eboni Worsley said in a statement. “We’re grateful to be able to pick up the pieces and begin rebuilding our lives once Sean is released. I am very grateful to the Parole Board of Alabama for showing the public the heart of the warm welcoming spirit of the people I’ve met since transitioning to Alabama.”

Worsley’s situation attracted national attention in July following a blog post by the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. APR picked up the story as well as The Washington Post and Fox News.

“After three months covering Sean’s case and learning about his life and his service to this country I am thrilled he will no longer be held in prison for the mistake of stopping for gas in Alabama with his legally prescribed medicine,” Nelson said. “At the same time, I can’t say justice has been served, because Sean should never have been arrested or jailed at all.”

“A extraordinary group of advocates finally achieved a good outcome for Sean, but until Alabama fixes its overly punitive marijuana laws, struggling people will continue to be harmed and precious state resources will be wasted on enforcement of laws that have no connection to public safety,” said Appleseed executive director Carla Crowder.

“The case of Sean Worsley deals with a convergence of several issues,” said State Rep. Neil Rafferty, D-Birmingham. “It deals with Alabama’s harmful marijuana laws, particularly concerning medical marijuana. It deals with our country’s misunderstanding and treatment of veterans returning home and transitioning to civilian life. And it deals with excessive policing – that put suspicion on a man doing nothing more than listening to the radio and playing air guitar to his wife.”

Rafferty is a post-9/11 veteran who advocated for Sean’s release.

“While the news of Sean’s parole is welcomed and to be celebrated, it only serves to highlight the legislative chamber’s duty to make right these wrongs and allow our criminal justice system to focus on crimes that actually endanger community safety,” Rafferty added.

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Lawsuit alleges “religious test” on Alabama voter registration form

Plaintiffs say the phrase “so help me God” amounts to a mandatory religious oath.

Micah Danney

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A lawsuit filed in federal court is challenging language on Alabama’s voter registration form, saying that the phrase “so help me God” amounts to a mandatory religious oath prohibited by the Constitution.

Alabama is the only state that requires voters to swear the truthfulness of their voter registration information by signing a form that includes those words without any option of a secular affirmation.

The lead plaintiff is Randal Cragun, an atheist who has sought to register to vote in Alabama since November 2019. He noticed that on the mail-in form that is downloadable from the secretary of state’s website, a warning states: “Read and sign under penalty of perjury,” and, “If you falsely sign this statement, you can be convicted and imprisoned for up to five years.” The declaration begins “I solemnly swear or affirm” and ends with “so help me God.”

Cragun contacted Secretary of State John Merrill’s office to ask how he could register without signing the declaration as it is written, according to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which filed the suit on behalf of Cragun and three other plaintiffs. The next day, Cragun was told by the director of elections that no legal mechanism existed to provide an alternative, and that crossing out any portion would result in the application being rejected.

“It is deplorable that in our secular nation nontheistic citizens are encountering a religious test to register to vote,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of FFRF. “No citizen should have to choose between their right to vote and their freedom of conscience.”

Before filing the lawsuit, the organization sent a letter to Merrill’s office saying that the oath violates the First Amendment. It cited Torcaso v. Watkins, in which the Supreme Court ruled that neither a state nor the federal government can force a person to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.

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Merrill declined to comment until his office has been served with the lawsuit, but according to FFRF, he has maintained that the registration forms are “prescribed by statute” and “that any changes would require legislative action.”

The lawsuit alleges that his office has the authority to create and amend voter registration forms. In a statement, FFRF noted that in all other states, voters are provided either a secular registration form or are not required to submit an oath or affirmation.

The group added that government officials routinely allow people who must take an oath, including attorneys, jurors and witnesses, “to make a secular affirmation instead when they are unable to swear ‘so help me God’ as a matter of conscience.”

The plaintiffs are seeking a permanent injunction that prohibits the secretary of state from requiring voters who register to swear “so help me God” and that requires his office to provide voter registration forms that don’t include the phrase as a requirement. They are also asking for a declaratory judgment that Merrill has violated the Constitution by not providing a secular alternative.

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“The secretary of state has willfully excluded nontheist citizens from registering to vote and is coercing a statement of belief in a monotheistic god by requiring nontheists to swear a religious oath,” said Patrick Elliott, FFRF’s senior attorney in the litigation.

In its letter to Merrill, FFRF said that a constitutional ban on mandatory religious oaths is a “well-settled issue.” 

In a 1972 case, Nicholson v. Bd. of Comm’rs of Ala. State Bar Ass’n, the court ruled, “We hold that it is a violation of the Constitution for the state of Alabama to compel plaintiff to swear an oath invoking the help of God as a prerequisite to entering upon the practice of law.”

The suit’s three other plaintiffs are Chris Nelson, Heather Coleman and Robert Corker. 

It was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, Southern Division. Steven P. Gregory, of the Birmingham-based Gregory Law Firm, is local counsel. FFRF associate counsel Liz Cavell is also involved in the case.

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