Let Them Swear on Their Faith

By Miguel Perez

February 26, 2007 6 min read

When someone is taking an oath, and placing his or her hand on a holy book, you want it to be a scripture that person believes in, right? It's only logical. If they swear on something for which they have no respect, how valid is the oath they are taking?

Yet around this country, thanks to an epidemic of xenophobia that has been sweeping the nation, some people insist that all oaths should be administered only with the Holy Bible.

In their warped way of interpreting U.S. history, they say that using the Koran — or any other holy book — to take an oath is tantamount to destroying a piece of American civilization and heritage. They say that breaking the 200-year tradition of using only the Bible is "a slap in the face to American citizens."

Of course, this is an attitude based mostly on ignorance. The only ones who could possibly feel a slap in the face are those who ignore one of the pillars on which this nation was built — freedom of religion.

Apparently, to them, that basic First Amendment principle is expendable, as long as it suits their need to soothe their xenophobia. Or, in this case, we could call it Islamophobia.

The oath squabble reached ridiculous proportions when Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, decided to place his left hand on the Koran instead of the Bible to be sworn into office.

Since Ellison is a Muslim, the Koran request provoked a series of idiotic comments. Trying to appeal to Christian conservatives, right-wing talk-show hosts suggested that if Ellison insisted on breaking with the American tradition of taking the oath on the Bible, he should not be allowed to serve in Congress. Never mind the fact that he was elected.

Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., took it even further. He wrote a nasty letter noting that without immigration reform "there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran."

Clearly, Goode was telling everyone that, although we live in a free and democratic country, Muslim Americans should not be politically empowered. As if that wasn't enough, he also tied his religious prejudice to immigration, a clear sign of xenophobia.

There was only one problem with Goode's premise: Ellison is not a foreigner. He was born in Detroit and can trace his American family history back more than 200 years. He was raised as a Roman Catholic and converted to Islam at the age of 19, when he was in college. Blaming Ellison's wish to use the Koran on immigration wasn't just ridiculous, it was idiotic.

Nevertheless, it shows how desperate the immigrant bashers are becoming, especially those who, since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have become paranoid about Muslim immigrants.

In the end, our constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion prevailed. And to rub it in, Ellison was sworn in on a Koran that was once owned by none other than one of the Founding Fathers — Thomas Jefferson. Ellison obviously wanted to remind everyone that the Founding Fathers believed in religious diversity — and in respecting one another's faiths.

And then, just when that issue seemed to be put to rest, it was resurrected in North Carolina. That's where a state appeals court agreed to allow the continuation of a lawsuit challenging a state law that prohibits witnesses from taking courtroom oaths using any sacred scripture other than the Bible.

It goes back to 2003, when a North Carolina Muslim woman and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state because the woman was not allowed to swear an oath on the Koran when she was called as a witness in a court case. The suit questioned the law's constitutionality, charging that it violates the First Amendment's establishment clause prohibiting lawmakers from creating a preference of one religion over another.

Nevertheless, in 2005 a judge threw out the lawsuit, saying that state law specifies that witnesses shall place their hands on "holy scriptures," which he interpreted to be only the Christian Bible.

"We've been doing it that way for 200 years," said Guilford County District Court Judge Joseph Turner, as if that gave him the right to decide that the Bible is the only "holy scripture."

Logically, a court of appeals reversed that decision last month and allowed the lawsuit to continue. In the end, there is no doubt that justice will prevail and Christian conservatives will not be able to impose their beliefs on everyone else.

Although the ACLU argues that North Carolina law already allows other scriptures to be used when taking courtroom oaths, a bill recently introduced in the state senate would allow oath-takers to place their hands "upon the Bible or any text sacred to the party's religious faith."

It makes a lot of sense, especially since we want people to swear over something they believe in.

To find out more about Miguel Perez, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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