By Omar Sacirbey
Religion News Service
Saturday, December 9, 2006
When Keith Ellison, the Minnesota Democrat whose election last month will make him the first Muslim in Congress, announced he would take his oath of office on Islam's holy book, the Koran, he provoked sharp criticism from conservatives and some heated discussion on the blogosphere.
The discussion has revived the debate about whether the nation's values and legal system are shaped only by Judeo-Christian heritage or if there is room for Islamic and other traditions.
"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," Dennis Prager, a conservative talk radio host in Los Angeles, wrote on http://TownHall.com. Prager, who is Jewish and serves on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, said Ellison should not be allowed to take his oath on the Koran.
"This has nothing to do with the Koran. It has to do with the first break of the tradition of having a Bible present at a ceremony of installation of a public official since George Washington inaugurated the tradition," Prager said in an interview.
But Ellison, who could not be reached for comment, would not be the first member of Congress to forgo a Bible. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) took her oath in 2005 on a Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, that she borrowed from Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.).
"Each of us has every right to lay our hand on the bible that we were raised with; that's what America is all about -- diversity, understanding and tolerance," Wasserman Schultz said. "It doesn't appear that Dennis Prager has learned anything from his time on the Holocaust commission."
Other politicians have departed from the Bible as well. Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle (R) used the Tanakh when she took her oath in 2002, and Madeleine Kunin placed her hand on Jewish prayer books when she was sworn in as governor of Vermont in 1985.
"The books had belonged to my mother, my grandparents and my great-grandfather. I wanted to place my hand on the weight of Jewish history and connect with the generations of men and women who helped bring me to this moment," she wrote on the Jewish Women's Archive Web site.
In 1825, John Quincy Adams took the presidential oath using a law volume instead of a Bible, and in 1853, Franklin Pierce affirmed the oath rather than swearing it. Herbert Hoover, citing his Quaker beliefs, also affirmed his oath in 1929 but did use a Bible, according to the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. Theodore Roosevelt used no Bible in taking his first oath of office in 1901 but did in 1905.
Neither the House nor the Senate keeps record of which holy books, if any, are used in the unofficial ceremonies. In fact, House members are sworn in together on the House floor in a ceremony without any book, holy or otherwise. But in an unofficial ceremony, individual members reenact an oath so it can be photographed.
Still, some conservative Christians have taken Prager's editorial as a clarion call. The American Family Association in Tupelo, Miss., for example, sent out an "action alert" to its 3.4 million members urging them to write their legislators "to pass a law making the Bible the book used in the swearing-in ceremony of Representatives and Senators."
Swearing in officeholders on Islam's holy book "represents a change in our society, our culture, if we hold up the Koran as equivalent to the Holy Bible," said association president Tim Wildmon. "If calling the Bible superior to the Koran in American tradition and culture is intolerant, then I'm guilty."
The Anti-Defamation League, a leading anti-Semitism watchdog group, said Prager's views were "intolerant, misinformed and downright un-American," especially since President Bush appointed him to the Holocaust Memorial Council in August.
On Monday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations called on the Holocaust council, which oversees the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, to remove Prager.
"No one who holds such bigoted, intolerant and divisive views should be in a policy-making position at a taxpayer-funded institution that seeks to educate Americans about the destructive impact hatred has had, and continues to have, on every society," the group wrote in a letter to Fred S. Zeidman, the council chairman.
The museum, in a statement Tuesday, said Prager speaks "solely for himself."
"Affirming" an oath without reference to God or sacred works is an option the founding fathers provided for in the Constitution to protect the rights of atheists and agnostics, said Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor specializing in free speech and religious issues, on National Review Online, in response to the Prager piece.
"Why would Muslims and others not be equally protected from having to perform a religious ritual that expressly invokes a religion in which they do not believe?" he said.
Many say barring Ellison from taking his oath on the Koran would violate the constitutional provision that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
Kevin J. "Seamus" Hasson, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said, "It makes no sense at all to have him violate the Constitution in order to affirm his duty to uphold the Constitution."