WASHINGTON—As he prepares to become the first Muslim in Congress, Rep.-elect Keith Ellison says the Constitution gives him the right to take the oath of office on the Quran, and that's what he intends to do Jan. 4.
The Minnesota Democrat's decision is stirring a debate among academicians and conservatives, with some saying it's appropriate to take an oath of office only on the Bible.
"Mr. Ellison, America, not you, decides on what book its public servants take their oath," radio talk-show host and author Dennis Prager wrote in a column this week. He said American Jews routinely had taken their oaths on the Bible, even though they didn't believe in the New Testament, and that if Ellison refused to do so, "don't serve in Congress."
Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at the University of California at Los Angeles, said the Constitution authorized people not to swear their oaths at all, protecting atheists and agnostics.
"Why would Muslims and others not be equally protected?" he wrote in National Review Online.
Ellison was attending meetings in Washington on Thursday and couldn't be reached for comment, according to Dave Colling, his spokesman.
But Ellison defended his plan to use the Quran, Islam's holy book, in an interview with Abdi Aynte, a reporter from Minneapolis who writes for Minnesota Monitor.
"The Constitution guarantees for everyone to take the oath of office on whichever book they prefer," Ellison was quoted as saying. "And that's what the freedom of religion is all about." Colling confirmed the quote.
Ellison's decision drew support from one prominent conservative firebrand, Colorado Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo, who champions a fence along the border with Mexico and thinks that unfettered immigration endangers American culture.
"He wants to take his oath on the Quran, that's fine," Tancredo said. "I think whatever you believe is necessary for you to uphold your obligations to the Constitution, that is fine with me."
In his weekly column, Prager said Ellison's decision is "an act of hubris that perfectly exemplifies multiculturalist activism."
"When all elected officials take their oaths of office with their hands on the very same book, they all affirm that some unifying value system underlies American civilization," Prager wrote. "If Keith Ellison is allowed to change that, he will be doing more damage to the unity of Americans and to the value system that has formed this country than the terrorists of 9/11."
In the National Review, Volokh noted that two former presidents—Franklin Pierce and Herbert Hoover—didn't swear their oaths but chose to affirm them.
He said the Supreme Court long had held that Americans had the right to be treated equally, regardless of their religion, and that forcing Ellison to use the Bible would violate his rights.
"Letting Christians swear the oath of office, while allowing members of other denominations only to swear what ends up being a mockery of an oath—a religious ceremony appealing to a religious belief system that they do not share—would be discriminatory," Volokh wrote.
Taking an oath on the Quran isn't unprecedented.
In 1999, the News-India Times reported that 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, the newspaper reported.
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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