WASHINGTON (BP)-When U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison became the first person in Congress ever to take the ceremonial oath of office on the Koran Jan. 4, conservatives divided as to whether it was appropriate.
Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, became the first-ever Muslim elected to Congress in November when the Democrats regained power in both the House and Senate. He took the ceremonial oath using a Koran once owned by Thomas Jefferson.
Soon after Ellison announced in November he would use a Koran for the ceremony, conservative radio host Dennis Prager wrote a column for Townhall.com criticizing Ellison’s choice. Prager, who is Jewish, said Ellison’s action “undermines American civilization” and “perfectly exemplifies multiculturalist activism.”
“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,” Prager wrote. “If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don’t serve in Congress. In your personal life, we will fight for your right to prefer any other book. We will even fight for your right to publish cartoons mocking our Bible. But, Mr. Ellison, America, not you, decides on what book its public servants take their oath.”
But Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at the University of California Los Angeles and a regular contributor to the conservative National Review Online Web site, disagreed, arguing that any requirement to take an oath using the Bible would violate the Constitution’s provision that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office.” The Supreme Court’s most conservative justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, would strike down any such requirement, Volokh said.
“The Constitution thus already expressly authorizes people not to swear at all, but to affirm, without reference to God or to a sacred work,” Volokh wrote. “Atheists and agnostics are thus protected, as well as members of certain Christian groups. 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? Under the Constitution, all of them ‘are incapable of taking an oath on that book,’ whether because they are Quakers, atheists, agnostics, or Muslims. Yet all remain entirely free to ‘serve in Congress.'”
Ellison, in fact, was not the first member of Congress to take the oath using a book other than the Christian Bible. In 2005 Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D.-Fla., used the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, according to The Washington Post.
Prager asserted that usage of the Bible by all members of Congress serves to affirm America’s common values.
“What Ellison and his Muslim and leftist supporters are saying is that it is of no consequence what America holds as its holiest book; all that matters is what any individual holds to be his holiest book,” Prager wrote.
” . . . When all elected officials take their oaths of office with their hands on the very same book, they all affirm that some unifying value system underlies American civilization. If Keith Ellison is allowed to change that, he will be doing more damage to the unity of America and to the value system that has formed this country than the terrorists of 9-11.”
Volokh, though, said Prager’s view of oaths undermines their central purpose.
“If you want the oath to be maximally effective, then it is indeed entirely true that ‘all that matters is what any individual holds to be his holiest book,'” Volokh wrote. “That book is the one that will most impress the oathtaker’s mind with the duty to comply with the oath . . . . Letting Christians swear the oath of office, while allowing members of other denominations only to swear what ends up being a mockery of an oath-a religious ceremony appealing to a religious belief system that they do not share-would be such discrimination.”
The American Family Association e-mailed a copy of Prager’s column to its supporters, asking them to contact their representative and senator and urge Congress “to pass a law making the Bible the book used in the swearing-in ceremony of representatives and senators.”
But Kevin J. Hasson, founder and chairman of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said such a law would be unconstitutional and wrong. The Becket Fund often sides with conservatives in key issues.
“It makes no sense at all to have him violate the Constitution in order to affirm his duty to uphold the Constitution,” Hasson told The Washington Post.