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Congressional oath doesn't involve a Bible or anything else

WASHINGTON—When newly elected members of Congress raise their right hands as they take their oaths of office in January, they won't be placing their left hands on the Bible, their high school yearbooks or any religious texts.

During official swearing-in ceremonies, elected members don't place their hands on any books. It's up to individual members, however, if they want to carry sacred texts.

"Some members carry a Bible. You don't actually put your hand on a Bible. I can't see how anyone would object to carrying a Quran," Senate historian Don Ritchie said.

But the blogosphere and talk radio are having a field day, criticizing Minnesota Democratic Rep.-elect Keith Ellison's decision to use the Quran when he's sworn in to office Jan.4. He's the first Muslim to be elected to Congress.

When Ellison took the oath after being elected to Minnesota's House he didn't use the Quran, Dave Colling, his spokesman, wrote in an e-mail. Colling didn't say whether Ellison had used any other sacred text.

The American Family Association, a nonprofit organization that focuses on the news media's influence on society, has entered the fray, calling on people to ask members of Congress to pass a law that would make the Bible the only book that could be used during swearing-in ceremonies.

The taking of the oath is relatively simple, with members asked to say: "I, (name of member), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or 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."

The House speaker administers the oath to members en masse on the floor of the House of Representatives. It's up to individual members if they want to hold religious texts, said Fred Beuttler, the House deputy historian. After the official swearing-in, members often have photos taken at a staged swearing-in ceremony in the speaker's office or their own offices, where they can place their left hands on sacred texts or hold them and have their families or religious leaders present, Beuttler said.

Protocol in the higher chamber is similar. The Senate president—the vice president of the United States—usually swears in four senators at a time, who often are accompanied by their fellow senators from the same states, Senate historian Richard A. Baker said. The staged ceremony occurs later in the old Senate chamber. Again, it's up to the senator if he or she wants to place a hand on a sacred text or carry one.

Using the Quran during a House swearing-in ceremony would be a first, piquing plenty of curiosity.

While religion isn't part of the official swearing-in ceremonies, the House routinely prays. The House chaplain designates who leads the opening prayer at a House session, often a minister brought in by a member, Beuttler said.

Only Christians have served as House chaplains, he said. The current chaplain, the Rev. Dan Coughlin, is the first Roman Catholic. The House leadership selects the chaplain, who's then elected by the entire House.

Several rabbis have given the opening prayer, but Beuttler said he didn't recall a Muslim ever giving the opening prayer during a House session.

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(McClatchy correspondent Rob Hotakainen contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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