Quran oath controversy of the 110th United States Congress
In mid-November 2006 it was reported that Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the 110th session of 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". In reaction to the news, conservative media pundit Dennis Prager criticized the decision in his November 28, 2006, column titled "America, not Keith Ellison, decides what book a Congressman takes his oath on".
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". 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". 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". Goode's foray into the controversy caused many other members of Congress to weigh in.
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.
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. 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]. 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?" 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".
Questions on "unbroken tradition"
Critics took Prager to task for saying that swearing in with a Bible is a "tradition that has been unbroken since George Washington". 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. Theodore Roosevelt used no Bible in taking his first oath of office in 1901, but did in 1905. 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) had to assume the Presidency.
Prager rescinds call for Ellison not to serve
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", in a telephone interview with the Associated Press, Prager said he did not think Ellison should be banned from serving. "I don’t think anything legal should be done about this." 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."
Prager calls on Ellison to bring Bible with Qur'an
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." 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."
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council's resolution
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". 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".
Impact of Rep. Virgil Goode
A new level of gravity came to the controversy when responding to "a flood of e-mails from constituents" about Ellison's oath, fifth term Representative 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."
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 Senators Bob Menendez (D–NJ) and Lindsey Graham (R–SC).
Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an
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".
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."
Ellison spokesman Rick Jauert said "Keith is paying respect not only to the founding fathers' belief in religious freedom but the Constitution itself." 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."
Opening day of the 110th Congress
Ellison at interfaith service
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.’”
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". 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."
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When Rep.-elect Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) takes his individual ceremonial oath of office on Jan. 4, it is to be with one hand upon Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Koran...Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, requested to take the oath upon Jefferson's personal copy of George Sale’s 1734 translation of the Koran, commonly called the Alcoran of Mohammed (London: Hawes, Clarke, Collins and Wilcox, 1764). The two-volume work, which resides in the Library of Congress’ Rare Book and Special Collections Division, is one of nearly 6,500 titles sold to Congress by Jefferson in 1815 to replace the Congressional Library that had been destroyed when the British burned the Capitol during the War of 1812.
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