Conservative, sometimes-rational commentator Dennis Prager is in a dudgeon because someone suggested that our first Muslim Member of Congress might take his oath of office on the Qur’an, rather than a Bible. Prager’s irrational rant demands that Congressmen Keith Ellison of Minnesota be stripped of his religious freedom (really — go see). He claims, using bogus history, that swearing without a Bible would be a first. That’s dead wrong.
Then-State Rep. Keith Ellison speaks at a Macalester College seminar on environmental justice and human rights, in February 2006. On November 7, Ellison was elected to represent Minnesota in the U.S. Congress, the first Muslim to be elected. Photo from Macalester College, American Studies Department.
Prager claims in his bio to have done graduate study. Would it be too much to expect him to understand the U.S. Constitution?
First, the U.S. Constitution prevents anyone from requiring any official elected to federal, state or local office, from having to take any oath on any religious book. Really. It’s in Article VI:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
You’d think Prager would know that.
Second, there is no book used to swear in Members of Congress, no Bible, no nothing. Members are usually sworn in on the floor of the House, en masse, simply asked to raise their right hands and swear the oath of office.
There is a photo session set up later, in which a member is photographed with the Speaker of the House, re-enacting the swearing-in, and many members use a family Bible or some other sentimentally-important book at that time. There is no requirement that a Bible be used, or that any book be used.
Prager could have learned that.
Third, Members swear to uphold the Constitution, not the Bible. It’s a secular oath, required by Article VI section 3 of the Constitution to ask members to make no religious statement. Members may leave off the last phrase, which some Christians append:
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 and 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.
Fourth, many Members simply forego using any book. There is no requirement that any book be used — the honor of the Member is put on the line, not her or his faith.
Prager appears, to me, to be trying to foment indignation for his own profit. There was a time when syndicated columnists, like Prager, had editors who checked their work for accuracy. There was a time when most editorial page editors would also check such works for accuracy, and spike silly comments. I hope there are such editors today.
How does a nationally-syndicated columnist get into print with such grotesque inaccuracies in his work?
Update: Two UCLA law professors took Prager to task already. Here is Stephen Bainbridge’s piece; here is one by Eugene Volokh. Tip of the old scrub brush to Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.