Newly elected congressman Keith Ellison, who'll be the first Muslim to serve in Congress, sparked a heated debate this week after he revealed his plans to use the Quran during his swearing-in ceremony. But the Minnesota Democrat isn't exactly proposing a Biblical change in the way Congress welcomes its members.
Ellison will stand on the House floor, along with all 434 other House members, on Jan. 3 for his official swearing in. He'll raise his right hand and solemnly swear—or affirm--to support and defend the Constitution "so help me God."
His left hand will remain at his side, empty.
"The point is that for what actually happens on the floor of the House, with 435 people, you won't see a Bible, you won't see a Torah, you won't see a Quran," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon).
It's during a private ceremony later, when new members of Congress stand with the Speaker and reenact their swearing in, that religious texts sometimes appear. And that's when Congressman Ellison will pick up the Quran--and other new members will bring in their family Bibles or new ones bought just for the occasion.
"That's when you will see a hand on a religious text," said Fred Beuttler, deputy historian of the House of Representatives. "But that's an informal ceremony for the members or the members' own purposes. It's not the official swearing in ceremony of the House, when no religious text is used."
A spokesman for Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) put it a little more bluntly: "The photo op with the speaker is nothing more than a photo op. They are not sworn in then."
Still, Ellison's decision to use the Quran—whether in a public or private ceremony—swept across the Internet and cable news channels this week. Some decried him as un-American and said his decision was undermining American civilization. Dennis Prager, writing on Townhall.com, said only a Bible was appropriate and had this message for Ellison: "If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress."
But others just as ardently defended his choice as shining proof that America is a nation of religious tolerance. UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh wrote a lengthy counterpoint to Prager, arguing he had misread the American constitutional system.
"A nation should both create a common culture and leave people with the freedom to retain important aspects of other cultures—especially religious cultures," Volokh wrote. "That notion is deeply American, and expressly enshrined in our Constitution."
In fact, swearing in ceremonies—be they for Congress or the White House or other offices—tend to involve a lot of pretty personal choices, and politicians have approached them in different ways. Linda Lingle, Hawaii's first Jewish governor, took the oath of office on the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible.
And there's precedent for taking an oath on the Quran. Osman Siddique, a Virginia businessman born in Bangladesh, reportedly used the Quran in 1999 to take the oath as U.S. ambassador to Fiji and three other Pacific nations. The News-India Times reported that Siddique, the first Muslim to serve as a U.S. ambassador abroad, took the oath on both the Bible and the Quran. The Quran was on top, the newspaper said.
The President generally is sworn in with a Bible, but not always. Teddy Roosevelt didn't use one in 1901, but he brought one out in 1905.
George Washington's inaugural Bible has been on display a number of times at the National Archives, and George H.W. Bush used it in his inauguration. Son George W. wanted to use the historic Bible for his inauguration, as well, but he was stymied by bad weather. Washington's Bible stayed inside in the Archives that wintry day.
Office holders don't even have to swear to uphold the Constitution. The Constitution itself gives them the option of affirming their support, in order to accommodate people, such as Quakers, who believe the Bible prohibits the swearing of oaths.
Presidents Franklin Pierce and Herbert Hoover, who was a Quaker, affirmed their oaths instead of swearing them. Hoover used a Bible for his affirmation, as did Richard Nixon, also a Quaker.
Nixon, in fact, swore on two Bibles, but as UCLA's Volokh points out, "this didn't seem to help."
In the courtroom, the Federal Rules of Evidence require witnesses to declare, by oath or affirmation, that they will testify truthfully. But that's not always as simple as it sounds, either.
Convicted 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui was asked to stand and take an oath during his trial, but he refused and showed utter contempt for the judge. He said he stood by his Islamic oath and claimed he was telling the truth—-a claim ended up being about as truthful as much of his testimony.