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Meet Keith Ellison.

Ellison is one of the new Democratic representatives elected in the November midterms, the winner of an open seat in Minnesota’s 5th District. Representative-elect Ellison is also a Muslim, the first member of that religion ever to be elected to the United States Congress. As such, when he takes his oath of office, he intends to do so on a copy of the Qur’an.

And there the story would end… in a world more rational than our own. In our world, the religious right, still smarting from its electoral trouncing and looking for a new scapegoat to fix its perpetual fury on, has attacked Ellison angrily. Dennis Prager of the right-wing site wrote a column saying that Ellison “should not be allowed” to do this, because the act “undermines American civilization” and, if permitted, would “do[] more damage to… this country than the terrorists of 9/11” (source). The reliably bigoted American Family Association took this ball and ran with it, and is now urging its followers to ask their elected representatives “to pass a law making the Bible the book used in the swearing-in ceremony of Representatives and Senators” (source).

This is theocracy in its purest form: the belief that America has one official religion, or one official holy book, that should be granted a favored place in law, with all other religions and scriptures legally shut out. Advocating such a position is one of the most un-American acts possible and contradicts all that our country stands for. Happily, this stupidity stands no chance of seeing the light of day – not just because we now have a Democratic Congress, but because any judge qualified for the position would strike down such a law in two seconds. Since Prager and the American Family Association evidently have never read the Constitution, allow me to provide them with some remedial education. Here is 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.

No religious test shall ever be required.” How much clearer can you get? The Constitution singles out this practice and bans it by name, not even in an amendment, but in the original articles themselves. There is no room whatsoever here for ambiguity or debate. Requiring that all politicians swear on a Bible to take office is the definition of a religious test, and as such, it is absolutely illegal in the United States of America. It has never been clearer just how starkly the principles upon which this country was built are in direct opposition to everything that small-minded theocratic bigots like the AFA stand for.

In fact, the swearing-in ceremony mandated by the Constitution does not even use a Bible. As the above passage shows, it consists solely of an “oath or affirmation” to support the Constitution. No Bible or other holy book is mentioned anywhere in this article, and none is needed or necessary. Its use is simply a tradition and has no status in law, and individual politicians are free to disregard it if they choose. In fact, as Robin Marty of the Minnesota Monitor adeptly points out, non-Christian elected officials have used their own scriptures before (Prager’s assertions to the contrary are flat-out wrong), and at least four presidents did not take their oaths of office on a Bible.

Prager derides the use of the Qur’an as an “act of hubris” that “perfectly exemplifies multiculturalist activism — my culture trumps America’s culture”. What he refuses to understand is that America’s culture is not based on the Bible in any legal sense. On the contrary, it is based on the very principle Ellison intends to uphold, the principle of individual freedom to choose which religion one will practice. That, not the most radical and ignorant wing of Christianity, is the true “unifying value system” to which Prager refers that “underlies American civilization”.

Prager wonders,

Devotees of multiculturalism and political correctness who do not see how damaging to the fabric of American civilization it is to allow Ellison to choose his own book need only imagine a racist elected to Congress. Would they allow him to choose Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” the Nazis’ bible, for his oath? And if not, why not? On what grounds will those defending Ellison’s right to choose his favorite book deny that same right to a racist who is elected to public office?

The answer is simple: If a racist was elected to Congress, then no, there is no constitutional means to forbid them from taking the oath of office on a copy of Mein Kampf. In America we do not and cannot outlaw speech just because we disagree with it, no matter how repugnant or vile the ideas which that speech advocates may be. On the other hand, if an outspoken racist legitimately was elected to Congress, then I think America would have far more serious problems than which book that person chose to take the oath of office on.

* * *

On the lighter side, a recent post on Americans United’s blog titled Falwell’s Flub brought my attention to an amusing story. It seems that the public schools in Albemarle County, Virginia, have a “backpack mail” program where teachers put fliers announcing local events in students’ backpacks. The father of two students in the school wanted to use this program to distribute literature about his church’s vacation Bible school. (I note, parenthetically, that many evangelical Christians share one very rude trait with spammers: their relentless effort to invade any public forum and turn it to their own uses, even if the forum was not created for such a purpose.) When the school denied this request, Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Counsel legal group threatened to sue, and the school backed down.

But America has no official religion, and if such an opportunity is open to one religious group, it must be open to all. Now Albemarle County students are coming home with fliers inviting them to attend a pagan celebration of the winter holidays, thanks to a shrewd local Unitarian church. Predictably, the local conservative Christians have suddenly acquired an understanding of why separating church and state is important. One such blogger, mentioned in the AU article but not cited, fumes that this is an “educational experience my children don’t need”, and announces, “I don’t know – yet – what to do or who to talk to but I will not step aside.”

Allow me to advise you, ma’am: I suggest you contact Americans United for Separation of Church and State. After all, to be perfectly frank, they saw the value of church-state separation long before you did. Isn’t it amusing that the same Christian groups who work so hard to establish religion in government so quickly wise up to the unfairness of it all when the beliefs that end up being established are not the ones they would have preferred?

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...