Saturday, December 02, 2006

Muslim lawmaker to take oath of office on the Qur'an

Ireland Online, USA Today

To summarize: Keith Ellison, newly elected to Congress and soon to be the first Muslim to take high federal office in the United States, wishes to take his oath of office on his own holy book, the Qur'an, rather than the Christian Bible. For this, he has come under fire from Dennis Prager, a conservative columnist and talk radio host.

For this, I have to say that Mr. Prager is, with all due respect, manufacturing a controversy where none should exist. His Townhall column, which may be found here, appears to be simple pandering to his normal audience. At least, that's what I should hope it is; I would hate to think that someone in his position should be so profoundly ignorant of his own country's actual laws.

Because yes, not only would requiring a lawmaker to swear in on the Bible be unconstitutional; it is factually incorrect to say that it is so in the first place. Several points:

First and foremost, the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution guarantees religious liberty without interference from the government for all citizens, even Congressmen.

Secondly, the oath taken is to uphold the Constitution, not the Bible. What the oath-taker's hand is on doesn't change the nature of the oath. If it did, officials would be sworn in on a copy of the Constitution, which I think would be a better idea anyway.

Thirdly, forcing someone to take an oath on a book he does not care about would, if anything, cause the oath to have less effect; traditionally, to swear upon something is binding upon the oathtaker to give that thing up should he break the oath; hence swearing on one's honor. Symbolically, forcing Representative Ellison to swear on the Bible would mean he was saying that he would give up the Christian faith if the oath were broken. Since he has already done this (he converted to Islam from Catholicism), such an oath would mean nothing to him, and have no hold on him whatsoever. This is the last thing that someone who wishes to see an oath fulfilled should want.

Lastly, and most damaging to Prager's assertions, Congressmen are not sworn in on any book whatsoever, Bible or otherwise. Newly elected and reelected Senators and Congressmen simply raise their right hands in unison and swear to uphold the Constitution in a summary mass swearing-in. They can bring in any book to swear on that they wish, or none if they don't wish to swear on a book. The occasional photographs that one sees of a Congressman being "sworn in" on a large Bible by another official are simply photo-ops; they pose for the picture and are done, the official swearing-in having already been accomplished in the House chamber.

Therefore, this is all much ado about nothing. Representative Ellison can bring his Qur'an to the ceremony if he pleases, and there isn't anything anyone can do about it, not that anyone should. He is free to exercise his religion as he sees fit while serving in Congress as long as it does not interfere with his duties as a Congressman, and those duties do not include swearing in on the Holy Bible.

Incidentally, it shouldn't: The Bible itself forbids the taking of oaths.

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