BOSTON -- Nearly every elected official in Massachusetts, from the governor to members of town boards, recite the phase "so help me, God" when taking the oath of office.

But a proposal to amend the Massachusetts Constitution and eliminate the phrase has gained favor with a key committee in the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

Approved last week by the influential Joint Committee on the Judiciary, the bill calls for substituting a secular version, known as the Quaker oath, which states, “This I do under the pains and penalties of perjury.”

The measure was filed by 14 mostly first-term Democratic lawmakers, who also back a proposal to amend the constitution to make it gender neutral, changing the pronoun "he" to "they" within the document.

Secular groups say the phase "so help me, God" violates the U.S. Constitution's ban on government establishment of religion, and say removing it from official proceedings is long overdue.

"The history of the United States is about pluralism and an insistence that all of the country's legal structures and forms of authority are representative of persons of every belief or a lack of belief," said Zachary Bos, Massachusetts state director for American Atheists. "We support any move that helps to increase the government's commitment to secularism."

The conservative Massachusetts Family Institute, which opposes the change, say removing "God" from official proceedings is the latest example of secular efforts to diminish the influence of religion in society.

"It's yet another cynical attempt to erase the rich legacy of faith that has been part of our Commonwealth from the Pilgrims to today," said Andrew Beckwith, the group's president.

Advocates of the change face long odds as it would require an amendment to the state constitution, the oldest in the country, which requires a lengthy and cumbersome journey. Yet the historic parchment, written by John Adams, has been amended 121 times since it was ratified in 1780, according to the Secretary of State's office. Voters most recently changed it in 2006 when they approved the state's health care law, which served as a model for the national Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare.

Constitutional amendments must be approved by two consecutive legislatures -- a process that could take three years or more -- before they are cleared for the statewide ballot and a decision by voters.

Two years ago, a woman seeking citizenship filed suit in Massachusetts to remove the phrase "so help me, God" from the oath of allegiance taken by those becoming naturalized citizens. The case was eventually rejected by a federal judge.

On a federal level, while many oaths to serve in government include the phrase "so help me, God," others -- most notably the presidential oath of office -- do not require it. Still, President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and President Donald Trump, a Republican, both used the phrase when taking the oath, a tradition some historians trace to President Abraham Lincoln in 1861.

The military has for years allowed enlisted service members and officers to omit the phrase in appointment oaths, or to use alternate language.

In Congress, the Natural Resources Committee in Democrat-controlled House of Representatives recently proposed removing "God" from the oath taken by witnesses addressing the panel. Republican leaders reacted with dismay, with some pundits suggesting it was a sign of the Democratic Party's leftward shift. The changes were later abandoned.

Christian M. Wade is the CNHI statehouse reporter in Massachusetts. Reach him at cwade@cnhi.com

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