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December 1, 2006

According to USA Today, the first Muslim elected to Congress, Keith Ellison (D) of Minnesota, has been blasted for taking his oath of office on a Quran, the Muslim holy book. On every poll I’ve seen, at least 50 percent of Americans responding are “offended,” and feel that Ellison should be compelled to swear on the Christian Bible.

What is the matter with these “offended” Americans? They need to grow up and remember where the country has come from, on this issue of oaths and free speech. I’m offended at such pathetic ignorance about American history.

The original “oath with hand on the Bible” was established in 1559 by Queen Elizabeth I. She did this to ensure that no Catholic could hold public office in a newly Protestant England. Catholics wouldn’t swear on the Scriptures in those days. The intolerant practice was imported to the American colonies, and written into most of the original 13 state constitutions to ensure that Protestants would have the same political supremacy in the new nation. It would be a long time before American Catholics and Jews were even allowed to hold office.

As the United States finally grew up, and out of the old religious intolerance, electees found creative ways of complying with the oath requirement. Our first Catholic President, John F. Kennedy, swore on a Catholic edition of the Bible. Today American oath practices have quietly begun to reflect that historical diversity of ours. For example, in any courtroom, a person taking the witness stand is allowed to simply swear. I don’t swear on the Bible — to me, it’s a venerable collection of historical accounts, nothing more. My personal beliefs were accommodated by the federal district court in 1997 when I testified during the CDA hearings.

I have no problem with taking an oath to tell the truth, or to serve well in government. But no American should be compelled to swear by a religion or deity that they don’t hold sacred in their personal life.

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