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Oath on Qur'an: Provocation or act of faith?

The choice by Keith Ellison, the first Muslim in the U.S. House, to take his oath of office on his faith's holy book, has stirred a debate.
WASHINGTON - Rep.-elect Keith Ellison's decision to take his oath of office on the Qur'an is stirring a debate among academics and conservatives, with some of them saying it's only appropriate to take an oath on the Bible.

The Minnesota Democrat says that the Constitution gives him the right to use the Muslim holy book, and that is what he intends to do on Jan. 4.

"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 his online column this week. He said that American Jews routinely have taken their oath on the Bible, even though they don't believe in the New Testament, and that if Ellison refuses to do so, "don't serve in Congress."

But Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the Constitution authorizes people not to swear their oath at all, protecting atheists and agnostics.

"Why would Muslims and others not be equally protected?" he wrote for National Review Online.

Ellison, who told the Star Tribune shortly after his election victory that he planned to use the Qur'an, was attending meetings in Washington on Thursday and could not be reached for comment, according to Dave Colling, his spokesman. But Ellison defended his plan to use the Qur'an, Islam's holiest book, in an interview with Abdi Aynte, a reporter from Minneapolis who writes for the Minnesota Monitor, an independently produced political news blog.

"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."

Ellison's decision drew support from one prominent conservative firebrand, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, who champions a fence along the border with Mexico and who says that unfettered immigration endangers American culture.

"He wants to take his oath on the Qur'an, 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 act is "an act of hubris that perfectly exemplifies multiculturalist activism." He warned that allowing Ellison to use the Qur'an could pave the way for a racist to use "his favorite book" to take the oath of office.

"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 America and to the value system that has formed this country than the terrorists of 9/11. It is hard to believe that this is the legacy most Muslim-Americans want to bequeath to America."

Ellison is the first Muslim in the nation, and the first black person from Minnesota, to become a member of the U.S. House. His campaign and election have attracted national attention because of his groundbreaking status.

Five years after 9/11 and with the ongoing raw debate about clashing civilizations and Islamic extremism, Ellison downplayed the role of religion in his drive for office. He nonetheless has acknowledged that his election has thrust him into position as a spokesman for Islam in the United States.

In the National Review, Volokh noted that two former presidents -- Franklin Pierce and Herbert Hoover -- didn't swear their oath but chose to affirm it.

He said that the Supreme Court has long held that Americans have 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.

Said Ron Eibensteiner, former state Republican Party chairman: "It doesn't matter if he wants to be sworn in on the Qur'an; that's perfectly fine. We have in this country freedom of religion and free speech."

Tammy Lee, who ran against Ellison as an Independent in the Fifth Congressional District, agreed. "This country was founded on principles of freedom of religion. Our Constitution guarantees it, and as a newly elected member of Congress who's going to uphold the Constitution, he has every right to choose what religious traditions he wants to practice."

Radio talk show host Dan Barreiro said he has been "a bit bewildered" by the concern expressed, mainly on blogs, about Ellison's choice. The topic came up Thursday on his afternoon show on KFAN. "The general consensus I got was that most people were not terrified at the prospect that this was something that he might do," Barreiro said.

"Certainly there is no law that mandates that a person put their hand on a Bible as any kind of litmus test of their loyalty to the country," he added.

In 2003, Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, who is Jewish, was sworn in with a Bible given to him by a priest who is a friend of the family. The late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, who also was Jewish, was sworn in in 1991 with a Bible from his wife Sheila's family.

Staff writers Joy Powell and Lesley Clark contributed to this report. Rob Hotakainen is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.

Rob Hotakainen • rhotakainen@startribune.com

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