At swearing in, congressman wants to carry Koran. Outrage ensues.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Keith Ellison hasn't even started his new job, and he's already under fire.

When America's first Muslim congressman, a Democrat from Minnesota, let it be known he will carry a Koran to his swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 4, conservative pundit Dennis Prager called it "an act of hubris ... that undermines American civilization."

In a web column, the talk-show host said, "Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress."

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The column has sparked a brouhaha on talk radio, in the blogosphere, and in newspapers across the country. The congressman's office has been inundated with angry e-mails.

The US Constitution says nothing about swearing on the Bible. But some commentators insist the US is a Christian nation, and the proposed act goes against its values and tradition. To others, the uproar shows an ignorance of the Constitution and the principle of religious freedom. Some people worry that it reflects growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the country.

Constitution is clear

To legal experts, no room for confusion exists. "A congressman having to swear an oath on a scripture that he doesn't believe in was unconstitutional from the very moment the Constitution was signed," says Kevin Hasson, head of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. "It would be beyond irony to violate the Constitution in the very act of requiring a congressman to swear his loyalty to uphold the Constitution."

In Congress, newly elected representatives do not put their left hands on any book. They raise their right hands, and are sworn in together as the speaker of the House administers the oath of office. Some do carry a book, according to House historians, and some choose to photograph a private swearing-in afterward with their hand on the Bible. One senator is known to have carried an expanded Bible that included the Book of Mormon.

The Constitution says: "The senators and representatives ... shall be bound by oath or affirmation to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

Some confusion may come from the long-standing tradition of presidents taking the oath with a hand on the Bible. But this is a choice and matter of custom, as is the phrase, "so help me God." President John Quincy Adams took the oath on a law book including the Constitution. President Theodore Roosevelt didn't use a book.

"The United States is not a Christian state or even a generically religious state," says Derek Davis, a church-state expert at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas. "We've worked hard for 200 years plus to uphold a principle of religious freedom for all citizens."

In allowing for an affirmation in place of an oath, the Constitution also makes room for atheists or agnostics.

Prager, who is Jewish, has come under fire from fellow Jews. The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement calling his argument "intolerant, misinformed, and downright un-American." Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, says the text used should be that which "is most sacred to the individual taking the oath. To ask ... otherwise is not only disrespectful to the person and to an entire religious tradition, but is asking the public official to be hypocritical."

The Council for American-Islamic Relations has called for Prager to be dropped from his recent presidential appointment to the Holocaust Memorial Council. "He is trying to marginalize Muslims by making it seem as though any practice of American Muslims is different or 'other' than what America stands for," says Arsalan Iftikhar, CAIR's legal counsel.

What the courts have decided

US courts have dealt with the issue in various ways. In a 1997 federal terrorism case, a Washington, D.C., judge permitted witnesses to swear to Allah. In North Carolina in 2005, a woman was not allowed to take the oath on the Koran when testifying. The American Civil Liberties Union has sued, and the case is in appeal.

At least 17 state constitutions explicitly prohibit discrimination against witnesses or jurors on religious grounds. Some allow people to swear or affirm "under the pains and penalties of perjury," omitting "so help me God." Judges generally have jurisdiction over how oaths are administered in their courts. Mr. Iftikhar says that some judges have allowed the use of the Koran.

The purpose of the court "is not to promote Christianity or Judaism or Islam or any other religion," Dr. Davis emphasizes. "It's to elicit truth from witnesses."

Mr. Ellison's office did not provide the Monitor with a statement, but his incoming chief of staff, Kari Moe, has said the issue is straightforward. "Religious freedom is a tradition in our country," she told the Associated Press.

For his part, Prager has posted a new column on the townhall.com website in response to the criticism. In a phone interview, he says he agrees that religious freedom does allow Ellison to use whatever book he likes.

"But I'm afraid we are becoming a diverse, secular society without any roots, and this is symbolically an example of that," he says. "The Bible is the repository of our values, not the Constitution ... and I'm asking him to honor that and include the Bible along with the Koran."

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