Keith Ellison hasn’t even started his new job, and he’s already under fire.

When America’s first Muslim congressman, a Democrat from Minnesota, let it be known he will carry a Koran to his swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 4, conservative pundit Dennis Prager called it “an act of hubris … that undermines American civilization.”

In a web column, the talk-show host said, “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. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don’t serve in Congress.”

The column has sparked a brouhaha on talk radio, in the blogosphere, and in newspapers across the country. The congressman’s office has been inundated with angry e-mails.

The US Constitution says nothing about swearing on the Bible. But some commentators insist the US is a Christian nation, and the proposed act goes against its values and tradition. To others, the uproar shows an ignorance of the Constitution and the principle of religious freedom. Some people worry that it reflects growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. . .

The Council for American-Islamic Relations has called for Prager to be dropped from his recent presidential appointment to the Holocaust Memorial Council. “He is trying to marginalize Muslims by making it seem as though any practice of American Muslims is different or ‘other’ than what America stands for,” says Arsalan Iftikhar, CAIR’s legal counsel.

What the courts have decided

US courts have dealt with the issue in various ways. In a 1997 federal terrorism case, a Washington, D.C., judge permitted witnesses to swear to Allah. In North Carolina in 2005, a woman was not allowed to take the oath on the Koran when testifying. The American Civil Liberties Union has sued, and the case is in appeal.

At least 17 state constitutions explicitly prohibit discrimination against witnesses or jurors on religious grounds. Some allow people to swear or affirm “under the pains and penalties of perjury,” omitting “so help me God.” Judges generally have jurisdiction over how oaths are administered in their courts. Mr. Iftikhar says that some judges have allowed the use of the Koran.


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