An atheist's complaints have resulted in the state's officially striking the words "so help me God" from the written oath to become a notary. "Those words never should have been there to begin with," Ken Rouse, general counsel for the Florida Department of State, said Friday. "The wording on some of these forms is sometimes antiquated."
Rouse said he did not know whether the forms for other state offices would be changed because it was unclear whether others include the clause.
The challenge to the wording was brought by Christos Tzanetakos of North Miami, director of the South Florida chapter of American Atheists.
Tzanetakos, 52, said he was outraged when he applied to become a notary last month and discovered the reference to divine intervention on the oath's affirmation form.
In an angry letter to the state, he noted the courts had ruled such oaths were unconstitutional. The state agreed.
"It was just an oversight on the state's part to leave those words on the oath over all these years, and it took this gentleman to point that out to us," Rouse said.
Religious leaders from across Florida were shocked by the speed of the change.
"This is frightening, that one person could sway the state to change things like that," said Glen Owens, assistant executive director of the Florida Baptist Convention in Jacksonville. "How can they completely abolish a system of doing things for one person?"
"There has to be something that a man can swear by," said the Rev. Robin Tripp, assistant pastor of Fifth Avenue Church of God in Deerfield Beach. "I'm afraid that if you take these words away, the oath will not be as strong and people may not trust the man that swears by it because there are no standards."
But Tzanetakos, an engineer who began to doubt the strict religious teachings of his Greek Orthodox parents when he was 16, said the issue is not whether a person believes in God, but whether the state can force a person to swear to a deity.
"This change is a first step in the separation of church and state," Tzanetakos said. "We have come a long way from the 1940s and 1950s with the McCarthy era.
"There is hope yet."