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What is an Oath?

Updated on February 6, 2010

An Oath, in law, a pledge or attestation, signifying an intention to be bound in conscience to the faithful and truthful performance of certain acts. The most familiar example of an oath is the pledge made by a witness in a court of law that he will testify truthfully. Another common form of oath is the solemn promise of a public official, upon taking office, that he will faithfully perform his duties. Since an oath is essentially a pledge, it is distinguishable from an affidavit, which is a sworn statement of fact. When a person's conscience will not permit him to take an oath, he is generally allowed to "declare" or "affirm" that he will testify truthfully; and the word "oath" has frequently been construed as being broad enough to include such an affirmation. Any person who believes in God, regardless of his religion, is competent to take an oath. Although oaths are usually taken upon the Gospels or by swearing with raised hand, no particular form is necessary to make an oath binding. Even where the form for oaths is prescribed by statute, a strict and literal adherence to the formalities is not essential to the validity of the act. There is, however, a minimum requirement that an oath must consist of some conscious act of undertaking an obligation, done in the presence of an officer authorized to administer oaths. The authority to administer oaths is inherent in the power of courts, and may be exercised either by the judge himself or by someone else at his direction and in his presence. Public officers other than judges derive from statutes their authority to administer oaths for specific purposes. In the absence of direct evidence to the contrary, there is a presumption that an oath administered by a public officer is valid.

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