One Holy Book Cannot Be Sole Option

There is no logical or constitutional basis for denying a duly elected member of Congress the right to select the holy book he chooses to use in taking his oath of office.

In January, all 435 newly elected members of the House of Representatives will take the same oath, pledging to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Most House members will choose to pronounce the oath on some version of the Bible -- often bringing along a cherished volume of their own that represents an honored family heirloom.

Other congressmen may opt to employ the constitutionally mandated phrase "I do solemnly affirm" -- as opposed to "I do solemnly swear," explicitly authorized in Article II, Section I -- and will use no holy book for the purposes of their oath-taking.

This year, one newly elected House member -- Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim ever elected to Congress -- will choose to take his oath of office on his own sacred scripture, the Koran.

Some religious conservatives have made themselves look terrible -- mean-spirited and intolerant and theocratic -- by objecting to this innocuous gesture, and generating a phony controversy over longstanding traditions of religious pluralism.

A number of leaders and organizations on the right (including the powerful American Family Organization) have begun arguing that Mr. Ellison "should not be allowed" to use his Koran in taking his oath of office.

My good friend and highly respected talk radio colleague Dennis Prager goes so far as to suggest that this personal choice "undermines American civilization" and "will embolden Islamic extremists and make new ones, as Islamists, rightly or wrongly, see the first sign of the realization of their greatest goal -- the Islamicization of America."

It is hard to see how the prospect of one House member out of 435 using his Koran to swear allegiance to the Constitution represents the "Islamicization" of anything.

If some Muslim fanatics insisted that we change our currency to bear the legend "In Allah We Trust," or demanded that government cafeterias stop serving daytime food during the fasting month of Ramadan, that would represent an outrageous attempt to Islamize the nation.

Michael Medved is a film critic, best-selling author, host of the nationally syndicated "Michael Medved Show," and a contributing editor at Townhall.com.

But Congressman Ellison has never asked to impose any aspect of his faith on anyone else, or on the public at large. He's requested an ordinary courtesy: the ability to bring his own holy book for the purpose of reciting an oath (an oath that remains word-for-word unchanged in his recitation.)

If this personal decision represents the "Islamicization" of the society, then what does my friend Dennis make of the yearly invitations to Muslim Imams to conduct opening prayers for the House or Senate? We've also seen White House celebrations under both Clinton and Bush of major Muslim feasts (Eid al Adha and Eid al Fitr) in which Presidents publicly honor Islamic traditions.

There's even a stamp from the US Post Office to celebrate Islamic holidays -- complementing similar stamps that honor Christmas, Hanukah and Kwanzaa.

These benign gestures fall within our long-standing traditions of religious pluralism (like allowing Hanukah Menorahs, alongside Christmas trees, in public places) and serve to recognize the presence in our midst of several million Muslim citizens, who play a role in our economy, our educational system, our military and, now, our Congress.

We may not like their religion, but as long as its adherents conduct themselves as loyal and law-abiding Americans we have no right to restrict its practice.

Personally, I'm no fan of the stridently liberal Mr. Ellison. During his campaign, I spoke on radio against his candidacy, especially in light of his past associations with the racist brand of Islam associated with Minister Louis Farrakhan.

But the voters in his Minnesota district ignored my advice (and that of other prominent conservatives) and elected him as their representative in Congress by an overwhelming margin.

His Islamic faith received extensive coverage during the campaign and no one from his district will be surprised when he takes the oath on the Koran. If we respect the electoral process, aren't the voters entitled to choose a Muslim representative, and having made that choice, aren't they also entitled to expect that his new colleagues won't compel him to hide or disregard the Islamic faith he very publicly professed?

Unfortunately for conservatives who argue against Mr. Ellison, there's also the inconvenient but highly relevant matter of the Constitution of the United States. Article VI, Clause 3 states: " ... no religious Test shall ever be required as Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

Michael Medved is a film critic, best-selling author, host of the nationally syndicated "Michael Medved Show," and a contributing editor at Townhall.com.

If insisting that an office-holder honor the Bible as part of his oath doesn't constitute a "religious test," then what, exactly does?

Should the Congress force new members to choose one particular version or translation of the Bible, because that's the edition favored by a majority? There are obvious and important differences in the Biblical text approved by the Catholic Church, various Protestant denominations, by Jews (no New Testament), and by Mormons (adding the Book of Mormon). Do we need a new bureaucracy to approve certain Holy Books and disapprove others?

In the column that launched the controversy, Dennis Prager baldly declares: "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."

This startling, flat-footed assertion is the equivalent of declaring the Bible to be America's sole, official, governmentally sanctioned Holy Book.

Wouldn't such endorsement represent precisely the sort of "establishment of religion" that our founders explicitly prohibited in the First Amendment?

No, the "establishment clause" doesn't mean what radical secularists claim it means -- banning "under God" in the pledge, for instance, or blocking opening prayers at sessions of Congress. But it does mean something, and clearly signals an intention to restrict some aspects of the federal government's promotion of organized faith.

For instance, if the Pledge of Allegiance included the words, "one nation, under God, and under supervision of His one true church and Pope Benedict XVI," that would obviously amount to a Constitutional violation.

If some future Congress passed legislation limiting employment of chaplains in the military to properly ordained ministers of the Southern Baptist Convention, the courts would also rightly -- and swiftly -- invalidate such a law as an unacceptable "establishment of religion."

Michael Medved is a film critic, best-selling author, host of the nationally syndicated "Michael Medved Show," and a contributing editor at Townhall.com. If the First Amendment's establishment clause means anything at all, then it means that Congress specifically, and the government generally, shall do nothing to privilege one "official" religious faith over others, or to discriminate against a specific religion, creating unique impediments to its adherents.

That also means that Congress has no right whatever to declare one Holy Book as the sole option for public religious expression while prohibiting an individual's choice of an unconventional alternative.

As long as Christian and Jewish members of Congress are allowed to take their oaths on their own versions of the Bible, Representative Ellison must be authorized to swear Constitutional Allegiance on his Islamic sacred scripture.

Clear-thinking conservatives should come together to welcome Mr. Ellison to Congress on his own terms. After he takes his oath of office on his Koran (as he undoubtedly will, some six weeks from now) we should then shake hands, congratulate him, and proceed to the spirited, determined debate against Keith Ellison's ultra-liberal ideas on a wide range of big issues that matter far more than this one.

Michael Medved is a film critic, best-selling author, host of the nationally syndicated "Michael Medved Show," and a contributing editor at Townhall.com.

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