Quran oath controversy of the 110th United States Congress

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Ellison's photo-op reenactment of his swearing in ceremony with Thomas Jefferson's Quran

In mid-November 2006 it was reported that Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the United States Congress (for Minnesota's 5th congressional district), "will take his oath of office with his hand upon the Qur'an, the Islamic holy book".[1][2] In reaction to the news, conservative media pundit Dennis Prager criticized the decision in his November 28, 2006, column entitled "America, not Keith Ellison, decides what book a Congressman takes his oath on".[3]

The column attracted national attention from both Ellison and Prager supporters. Presented with the fact that all members of the House swear in (or affirm) en masse without the use of any religious text, and that such works are only used in ceremonial reenactments afterwards, Prager stated "that’s the whole point: it’s exactly because it’s ceremonial that it matters".[4] In response to a wave of criticism, Prager released another column on the topic on December 5, 2006, entitled "A response to my many critics—and a solution".[5] In that column, Prager repeated the inaccurate claim that no, or hardly any, officeholder in U.S. history had ever refused to take his oath on the Bible.

The controversy became more heated when Rep. Virgil Goode (R–VA) issued a letter to his constituents stating his view that Ellison's decision to use the Qur'an is a threat to "the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America...[and] if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran".[6] Goode's foray into the controversy caused many other members of Congress to weigh in.

Ellison went on to use the English translation of the Qur'an owned by Thomas Jefferson for the swearing-in ceremony.[7]

Constitutional provisions[edit]

Critics of Prager point out that the United States Constitution provides "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States" (Article VI, section 3) and at least four Presidents have not been sworn in on a Bible.[8]

In his December 5, 2006 article on the subject Prager denied that he was promoting a de facto religious test, despite his statement that Ellison "should not be allowed" to take his oath on the Qur'an. "I never even hinted that there should be a religious test. It has never occurred to me that only Christians run for office in America. The idea is particularly laughable in my case since I am not now, nor ever have been, a Christian...I want people of every faith and of no faith who affirm the values I affirm to enter political life. My belief that the Bible should be present at any oath (or affirmation) of office has nothing whatsoever to do with the religion of the office holder. ...You don't have to be Christian to acknowledge that the Bible is the source of America's values. Virtually every founder of this country knew that and acknowledged it."[5]

Law Professor Eugene Volokh noted that the Constitution states officials "'shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required...' The option of giving an affirmation rather than oath...[shows] the Constitution thus already expressly authorizes people not to swear at all, but to affirm, without reference to God or to a sacred work. Atheists and agnostics are thus protected, as well as members of certain Christian groups [such as Quakers].[9] 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?"[10] Volokh's point here is furthered by the fact that then Rep.-elect Mazie Hirono (D–HI), who is a Buddhist, announced that she would use the affirmation option and "has no plans to use any religious text in the swearing-in ceremony".[11]

Administration of Oath of Office[edit]

Text of the Oath[edit]

The Senate Historical Office writes about the oath administrated to all elected or re-elected Federal Legislatures, "At the start of each new Congress, in January of every odd-numbered year, the entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate performs a solemn and festive constitutional rite that is as old as the Republic...The Constitution contains an oath of office only for the president. For other officials, including members of Congress, that document specifies only that they "shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation to support this constitution." In 1789, the First Congress reworked this requirement into a simple fourteen-word oath: ‘I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States.’" "The current oath is a product of the 1860s, drafted by Civil War–era members of Congress intent on ensnaring traitors."[12] The words of the oath are "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God."[12]

Law Professor Eugene Volokh points out that the inclusion of "So help me God" is not legally necessary, as the Constitution "expressly authorizes people not to swear at all, but to affirm, without reference to God or to a sacred work".[10] While there is no guideline at the Federal level, many state Constitutions require those choosing to affirm, to substitute "So help me God" with "Under the pains and penalties of perjury".[13][14][15][16][17]

The Asian Tribune has reported that "Instead of ‘So Help me God’, Ellison, an African American and of Islamic faith, will pledge to uphold the Constitution of the United States ending with the phrase ‘Allahhu Akbar’ meaning 'God is Great' in Arabic."[18]

Oath ceremonies[edit]

The swearing-in, en masse, of the 108th United States House of Representatives, January 2003

The United States Congress does not swear anyone in using any holy book, "No Member of Congress is officially sworn in with a Bible. Under House rules, the official swearing-in ceremony is done in the House chambers, with the Speaker of the House administering the oath of office en masse. No Bibles or other holy books are used at all. Members may, if they choose, also have a private ceremony with family and friends. At these unofficial ceremonies, Members frequently solemnize the event by taking an oath while holding a personal family Bible".[19] "By tradition, all members of the House are sworn in together on the House floor. It's in the photo-op ceremony that a Bible is used or in Ellison's case, the Quran".[20] The tradition of the photo reenactment oath "dates to the birth of photography, so congressmen could send photos back to their hometown newspapers".[21] The Press Secretary with the House Administration Committee stated that what Representatives do at the private ceremony is "between the new member and the Speaker’s office. They have to ‘work that out’."[22] All incoming freshman to the 110th Congress "will be sworn in on Jan. 4 by the new Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi".[23]

When questioned about this "Prager argued in a telephone interview [with the Associated Press] that the ceremony was no less significant than the actual swearing-in. 'Oh, that’s the whole point: it’s exactly because it’s ceremonial that it matters to me,' he said. 'Ceremonies are exceedingly important. That is the way a society states what is most significant to it.' Mr Prager argued that the issue was not about freedom of religion. 'I want Jews like myself to take the oath on the Bible, even though the New Testament is not our Bible,' he said. Asked if it would be a problem for a Jewish legislator to take the oath on a Bible that included only the Old Testament, Mr Prager responded, 'Yes, it would,' because he said the point is to honor the 'Bible of this country.'"[4]

An example of swearing-in reenactment, performed by E. Clay Shaw, Jr. and Dennis Hastert during the 108th Congress

In his December 5, 2006 article he expanded on the point "the very fact that it is a ceremony makes my point far more forcefully. Obviously, Mr. Ellison will have already been officially sworn in. Therefore, the use of the Koran has absolutely nothing to do with taking an oath on the book he holds sacred. It is used entirely to send a message to the American people. So all the arguments that he must be able to swear on the book he holds sacred are moot. He will have already been sworn in. Ceremonies matter a lot. As I told the Associated Press, ceremonies are essential to the continuity of a civilization. Therefore, the first time in American history that a congressman has decided to jettison the Bible for another text should not go unnoticed—or elicit yawns, as it has from conservative and libertarian critics."[5] "This is all symbolic, which makes it even more pointless to say [Ellison] can only take an oath on what he believes", Prager said in another interview.[24]

Questions on "unbroken tradition"[edit]

Lyndon B. Johnson being sworn in aboard Air Force One with a Catholic missal.

Many critics have taken Prager to task for saying that swearing in with a Bible is a "tradition that has been unbroken since George Washington".[25] For example, John Quincy Adams took the presidential oath on a law volume containing a copy of the Constitution in 1825, 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."[21] Other sources have noted that after John F. Kennedy was assassinated a Catholic Missal was used as no Bible could be found when Lyndon B. Johnson (who was not even Catholic himself, but a Disciple of Christ[26]) had to assume the Presidency.[27]

Prager has responded to some of this information in interviews. Eugene Volokh pointed out on Paula Zahn Now that Hoover didn’t swear on a Bible, but affirmed and took no oath. Prager replied "Herbert Hoover had a Bible...He just didn't swear by it, because I believe he was a Quaker. That's a very different story".[28] On Hannity and Colmes Prager stated "The only president who did not have a Bible was Theodore Roosevelt, first term, and it was because [President William] McKinley had just been shot. Every president used a Bible".[29] The Library of Congress notes that "As the first Catholic elected president, Kennedy was the first to use a Catholic (Douay-Rheims) version of the Bible for his oath".[30] This means that Kennedy’s Bible was different from the Bibles of all other Presidents (past or present) as it contained the Deuterocanonical books which Protestants call the Apocrypha and reject, claiming these works are non-canonical.[31]

Prager rescinds call for Ellison not to serve[edit]

Despite writing that Ellison wants to use "the Koran. He should not be allowed to do so...If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book [the Bible], don't serve in Congress",[3] in a telephone interview with the Associated Press, Mr Prager said he did not think Mr Ellison should be banned from serving. "I don’t think anything legal should be done about this."[4] In an interview with USA Today's Andrea Stone, Prager announced "that he's going to keep pressing the issue, though he conceded that trying to ban Ellison from choosing to use a Qur'an 'may well be' unconstitutional. He'll be writing and talking about this issue again". Prager said "I'm not arguing legality. I'm arguing what you should do."[32]

Prager dismisses Tanakh Oaths[edit]

Prager's Nov. 28, 2006 article claimed that "for all of American history, Jews elected to public office have taken their oath on the Bible, even though they do not believe in the New Testament".[3] While for all of American history Jews elected to public office have indeed taken their oath on the Bible, several American members of Judaism elected to political office "have departed from the [Christian] Bible as well. Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle 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 the first female governor of Vermont in 1985."[21] In the Federal Congress Debbie Wasserman Schultz also used a Tanakh, as did Ed Koch (D–NY) who served in the U.S. House from 1969 to 1977.[33] Likewise, Rep. Henry Waxman (D–CA) who is now entering his seventeenth term of office, stated "he had never used a [Christian] Bible at his own swearing-in ceremonies."[33]

When asked about this Prager said these "Jewish officeholders who had insisted on the Hebrew Bible were 'secularists' who didn't believe what was in it anyway".[32]

When confronted on November 30, 2006, on CNN's Paula Zahn Now by Eugene Volokh with the fact that "[Associate] Justice [of the Supreme Court, Arthur] Goldberg used the Tanakh, the Jewish Bible". Prager responded "Justice Goldberg used [the] Old Testament, which is part of the American Bible." Volokh began to point out that the lack of New Testament in Goldberg's Bible proved that Prager's assertions were mistaken, but was cut off as the segment ran out of time.[28]

In his Dec. 5, 2006 article Prager again acknowledged some Jews had used the Tanakh, "Even the vast majority of Jews elected to office have used a Bible containing both the Old and New Testaments, even though Jews do not regard the New Testament as part of their Bible. A tiny number of Jews have used only the Old Testament. As a religious Jew, I of course understand their decision, but I disagree with it."[5] He did not, however, accuse them of "disuniting the country," or imply that their actions could be more dangerous than the September 11 attacks as he did with Ellison.

Oath ceremonies of first Buddhists in Congressional history[edit]

Hank Johnson (D-GA)
Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-HI)

The New York Times pointed out with all the focus on Ellison's religious sensibilities, "we’ve neglected the fact that another faith is making its first showing in the Capitol with not one but two freshmen".[34] Mazie Hirono (D–HI) and Hank Johnson (D–GA), both elected in 2006, are the first Buddhists in American history to serve in the United States Congress.[35] The Times reported that "A spokesperson said that Mr. Johnson plans to use a Bible, citing tradition", and Hirono "said she probably would not use any book, but that in the past, when she was sworn in as lieutenant governor, she used a friend’s family Bible".[34]

Prager calls on Ellison to bring Bible with Qur'an[edit]

In his December 5, 2006 column entitled "A response to my many critics—and a solution", Prager's solution in the title is for Ellison to swear on the Islamic Qur'an which he believes to be sacred along with the Christian Bible which he does not. Prager wrote "It is not I, but Keith Ellison, who has engaged in disuniting the country. He can still help reunite it by simply bringing both books to his ceremonial swearing-in. Had he originally announced that he would do that, I would have written a different column -- filled with praise of him. And there would be a lot less cursing and anger in America."[5] In a December 7, 2006 interview, Prager continued along these lines, saying "I'm afraid we are becoming a diverse, secular society without any roots, and this is symbolically an example of that. 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."[36]

As an example Prager has referenced the case in 1999 when "M. Osman Siddique, a Virginia businessman of Bangladeshi origin, used the Quran to take the oath when he became the U.S. ambassador to Fiji and three other Pacific nations: Nauru, Tonga, and Tuvalu. He took the oath on the Bible and the Quran, with the Quran on top".[37] Siddique was "the first Muslim to be appointed to represent the United States abroad as an Ambassador. Following his swearing-in ceremony, Siddique said he believed he was the first American ambassador of the Islamic faith to take the oath of office with his hand on the Holy Qur’an. The Christian Bible is traditionally used to swear in U.S. officials and Siddique said his wife, Catherine Mary Siddique, provided one for the ceremony."[38]

Appearing on MSNBC with Tucker Carlson, Prager said "If he [Ellison] had the Koran and a Bible as one Muslim ambassador did about 10 years ago, I think it was the ambassador to the Fiji Islands, don‘t recall exactly, I wouldn‘t have ever written the column...If he can‘t bring the Bible along with his Koran, that's a statement that we ought to take seriously. ...We should pressure him to doing the great thing to unify Americans and bring the Bible along with the Koran. That's not exactly a terrible demand. It doesn't in any way compromise his Islamic faith. It says that he is saying to the American people, look, I am part of you. I don't want to demolish the tradition that has been unbroken since George Washington. I don't think that's too much to ask of Keith Ellison."[25]

Ellison did not denigrate the Bible and spoke of the influence both Catholicism and Islam had on his development saying "people draw strength and moral courage from a variety of religious traditions. Mine have come from both Catholicism and Islam. I was raised Catholic and later became a Muslim while attending Wayne State University. I am inspired by the Quran's message of an encompassing divine love, and a deep faith guides my life every day."[39]

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council's resolution[edit]

Because of his part in the controversy, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) called for Prager to be removed from the council overseeing the U.S. Holocaust Memorial. CAIR's executive director said "No one who holds such bigoted, intolerant and divisive views should be in a policymaking 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".[20] Some members of the Memorial Council like Ed Koch were vocal in advocating his removal. In the end the executive committee of the council issued a resolution that the Council "disassociates itself from Mr. Prager's statements as being antithetical to the mission of the [Holocaust] Museum as an institution promoting tolerance and respect for all peoples regardless of their race, religion or ethnicity".[40]

Impact of Rep. Virgil Goode[edit]

US Rep. Virgil H. Goode, Jr., of Virginia's 5th district

A new level of gravity came to the controversy when responding to "a flood of e-mails from constituents"[6] about Ellison's oath, fifth term Rep. Virgil H. Goode, Jr. (R–VA) issued a letter on the matter. Goode wrote "When I raise my hand to take the oath on Swearing In Day, I will have the Bible in my other hand. I do not subscribe to using the Koran in any way. The Muslim Representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district and if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran...I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped."[6]

Goode's letter generated much criticism from Muslim-American advocacy groups and from his fellow United States Legislators. Among those critical of Goode, are Reps. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D–NJ), Jim Moran (D–VA), Michael Honda (D-CA), Rahm Emanuel (D–IL), and Nancy Pelosi (D–CA) plus Sens. Bob Menendez (D–NJ) and Lindsey Graham (R–SC).

Goode's spokesman, Linwood Duncan, said "no apology was forthcoming, and that the congressman stands by the letter."[41][42]

Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an[edit]

Mark Dimunation, Chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

On January 3, 2007, the Washington Post announced that Ellison "will hold the personal copy once owned by Thomas Jefferson" loaned to him by "the rare book and special collections division at the Library of Congress".[43] Jefferson's home at Monticello is coincidentally in Virginia's 5th congressional district which is represented in the Federal Congress by Virgil Goode, a major figure in the controversy.

Mark Dimunation, head of the rare book and special collections division at the Library of Congress (and former resident of the Congressional District Ellison now represents) said he was contacted early in December 2006 by Ellison, who told him "He wanted to use a Koran that was special."[43] In the past the Library of Congress has also loaned out rare Bibles "for inaugurations and other special occasions."[43] Dimunation, who "will walk the Quran across the street to the Capitol and bring it back after the ceremony", said "As a rare book librarian, there is something special about the idea that Thomas Jefferson's books are being walked across the street to the Capitol building, to bring in yet another session of governmental structure that he helped create."[44]

Kevin J. Hayes, author of How Thomas Jefferson Read the Qur’an, wrote that Jefferson purchased the Qur'an at the printing office of the Virginia Gazette in the autumn of 1765. This is seen as a development of his legal studies on natural law. "The standard work in the field, Freiherr von Pufendorf's Of the Law and Nature and Nations, gave readers an almost endless number of possible references to track down and thus offered Jefferson an excellent guide to further reading. Though Pufendorf's work reflects a prejudice against Islam characteristic of the time in which it was written, he nonetheless cited precedent from the Qur'an in several instances. Jefferson acquired his Qur'an not long after the injustice of the Stamp Act had forced him to question seriously the heritage of English constitutional law and to seek ultimate answers in the ideas of natural law and natural rights. Reading the Qur'an also let him continue studying the history of religion."[45]

Jefferson's Qur'an is an English translation by George Sale that was published in London in 1764 (a later pressing of the 1734 edition). Chief Librarian Dimunation stated that Sale's translation "is considered the text that shaped Europe's understanding of the Quran". Congress acquired this Qur'an in 1815 as part of the more than 6,400-volume collection Jefferson sold them for $24,000 to replace the congressional library burned by British troops in 1814 during the War of 1812. The Qur'an survived the 1851 fire in the Capitol that destroyed most of Jefferson's collection. It is a two-volume work, bound in leather with marble boards, and was given a leather binding in 1919. Its title page reads, "The Koran, commonly called 'The Alcoran of Mohammed.'" Jefferson marked his ownership of the book by writing the letter "J" next to the letter "T" that was already at the bottom of pages.[7][43][44]

Ellison spokesman Rick Jauert said "Keith is paying respect not only to the founding fathers' belief in religious freedom but the Constitution itself."[43] Ellison, who was originally told about the Qur'an from an anonymous letter, spoke to the Associated Press in a phone interview. He said that using Jefferson's Qur'an makes a point, "It demonstrates that from the very beginning of our country, we had people who were visionary, who were religiously tolerant, who believed that knowledge and wisdom could be gleaned from any number of sources, including the Quran. A visionary like Thomas Jefferson was not afraid of a different belief system", Ellison said. "This just shows that religious tolerance is the bedrock of our country, and religious differences are nothing to be afraid of."[44]

Opening day of the 110th Congress[edit]

Ellison at interfaith service[edit]

On January 4, 2007, before the first session of the 110th Congress, Ellison at a multi-faith prayer service recited verse Al-Hujurat 49:13 from the Quran which said: ‘Oh, humanity, we created you from a single pair, male and female, and made you tribes and nations so that you would know each other and not despise each other.’”[46][47]

Ellison meets Goode[edit]

After the swearing-in en masse, representatives greeted each other on the House floor and Ellison and Virgil Goode were introduced, shook hands and agreed to talk at length later.

Ceremonial reenactment[edit]

After the members of the 110th House of Representatives were sworn in en masse, Ellison was the first Representative scheduled to have his picture taken with the new Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Though the Library of Congress is directly across the street from the Capitol, Thomas Jefferson’s Quran took fifteen minutes to arrive as it was brought through "a long, winding underground route via tunnels...to protect the Quran from the elements".[7] Once inside the Capitol the Quran was placed in a rectangular box, and handled with a green felt wrapper then guards ran the book through security x-ray machines. Ellison was impressed by the two-volume set, saying "Look at that. That’s something else. Oh my God. This is great." A few minutes later, Nancy Pelosi arrived and photos of a ceremonial reenactment oath were taken. There were so many of Ellison’s family in attendance that the ceremony was done in two takes. Among his family was his mother Clida Ellison who thought that the controversy had a positive effect, "because many people in America are going to learn what the diversity of America is all about". Clida Ellison noted that she is a practicing Roman Catholic who goes to Mass every day. Ellison expressed his satisfaction that the controversy was behind him, "It was good, we did it, it's over, and now it's time to get down to business...maybe we don't have to talk about it so much anymore. Not that I'm complaining, but the pressing issues the country is facing are just a little bit more on my mind right now."[7]


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