Reform Jewish Leader Supports First Muslim Member of Congress’ Right to Take Oath of Office Using Koran
Saperstein: No provision has meant more to ensuring that Jews and other religious minorities would enjoy rights as citizens without regard to their religious practices and identity than the Constitution’s Article VI ban on religious tests for office.
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In Response to today’s column by Dennis Prager and the ensuing criticism of Repersentative Keith Ellison’s request to take his oath of office on the Koran, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement:
The criticism by Dennis Prager of Rep. Keith Ellison’s use of the Koran for taking the oath of office is irreconcilable with American law and ideals as well as Jewish values and interests.
The oath of office consists, legally, of the words said, not the Scripture on which one symbolically places one’s hand, if any. But insofar as a text is used for ceremonial purposes, it ought to be the text that is most sacred to the individual taking the oath. To ask the official to do otherwise is not only disrespectful to the person and of an entire religious tradition but is asking the public official to be hypocritical.
Mr. Prager’s assertion that: “If you are incapable of taking an oath on that Book [i.e., the Bible], don’t serve in Congress” would require rewriting our Constitution. No provision has meant more to ensuring that Jews and other religious minorities would enjoy rights as citizens without regard to their religious practices and identity than the Constitution’s Article VI ban on religious tests for office. Mr. Prager would now abandon 220 years of American freedoms and tolerance -- and would do so to the detriment not only of Muslims but of Jews. For if, as he argues: … all elected officials take their oaths of office with their hands on the very same book, the Book that traditionally was used was the Christian Bible. Some made exactly the same comments about Jews as Mr. Prager now makes against Muslims. And if we must all take an oath on the Christian Bible or not “serve in Congress,” what a disaster for American Jews and so many other minorities.
America should be proud of having elected the first Muslim member of Congress. It reflects the diversity of this nation and its openness and tolerance to all people based on their qualifications and merit not on their religious identity. Rep. Ellison proudly asserted his Muslim identity and was elected by the voters of Minnesota because of his exemplary qualifications. Mr. Prager’s argument that: “Ellison's doing so [i.e. using the Koran] will embolden Islamic extremists and make new ones, as Islamists, rightly or wrongly, see the first sign of the realization of their greatest goal -- the Islamicization of America” smacks of the most dangerous kind of prejudice and would damn anyone who would treat the Koran as their sacred text for a public occasion as being in league with terrorists. This is a shameful argument. I suspect it is wrong factually in that this testifies to the religious openness and tolerance of America – i.e. to values that are among the most threatening to extremists. But even if someone did misinterpret or misuse this, the notion that the exercise of your first amendment rights should be banned because someone else might misuse your words or misinterpret your action, violates two centuries of Supreme Court rulings.
I urge Mr. Prager to rethink his position and apologize to Rep. Ellison.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the
Washington office of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, whose membership includes more than 1800 Reform rabbis.