The ensuing discussion has revived the debate about whether America's values and legal system are shaped only by Judeo-Christian heritage or if there is room for Islamic and other traditions.
"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," Dennis Prager, a conservative talk radio host in Los Angeles, wrote in a Nov. 28 TownHall.com editorial. Prager, who is Jewish and serves on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, argued that Ellison should "not be allowed" to take his oath on the Qur’an.
In a subsequent interview, Prager said his objections were not to Ellison's use of the Qur’an, but to him not using a Bible.
"This has nothing to do with the Qur’an. It has to do with the first break of the tradition of having a Bible present at a ceremony of installation of a public official since George Washington inaugurated the tradition," Prager said.
Prager added that he would accept Ellison using a Qur’an if he also used a Bible. Ellison could not be reached for comment.
But Ellison would not be the first member of Congress to forgo a Bible. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., took her oath in 2005 on a Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, she borrowed from Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., after learning a few hours before that the speaker of the House didn't have any Jewish holy books.
"Each of us has every right to lay our hand on the Bible that we were raised with; that's what America is all about, diversity, understanding and tolerance," said Wasserman Schultz. "It doesn't appear that Dennis Prager has learned anything from his time on the Holocaust commission."
Other politicians have departed from the Bible as well. Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle used the Tanakh when she took her oath in 2002, while Madeleine Kunin placed her hand on Jewish prayer books when she was sworn in as the first female governor of Vermont in 1985.
"The books had belonged to my mother, my grandparents and my great-grandfather. I wanted to place my hand on the weight of Jewish history and connect with the generations of men and women who helped bring me to this moment," she wrote on the Jewish Women's Archive Web site.
In 1825, John Quincy Adams took the presidential oath using a law volume instead of a Bible, and in 1853, Franklin Pierce affirmed the oath rather than swearing it. Herbert Hoover, citing his Quaker beliefs, also affirmed his oath in 1929 but did use a Bible, according to the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. Theodore Roosevelt used no Bible in taking his first oath of office in 1901, but did in 1905.
Neither the House nor the Senate keeps record of what holy books, if any, are used in the unofficial ceremonies. In fact, House members are sworn in together on the House floor in a ceremony without any book, holy or otherwise. But in an unofficial ceremony, individual members re-enact an oath so it can be photographed. The tradition dates to the birth of photography, so congressmen could send photos back to their hometown newspapers.
Still, some conservative Christians have taken Prager's editorial as a clarion call. The American Family Association in Tupelo, Miss., for example, sent out an "action alert" to its 3.4 million members urging them to write their congressmen "to pass a law making the Bible the book used in the swearing-in ceremony of Representatives and Senators."
Swearing in officeholders on Islam's holy book "represents a change in our society, our culture, if we hold up the Qur’an as equivalent to the Holy Bible," said AFA President Tim Wildmon.
"If calling the Bible superior to the Qur’an in American tradition and culture is intolerant, then I'm guilty."
The Anti-Defamation League, a leading anti-Semitism watchdog group, issued a statement calling Prager's views "intolerant, misinformed and downright un-American," especially since President Bush appointed him to the Holocaust Memorial Council in August.
Prager said the ADL statement was a result of a personal feud with the group's president, Abe Foxman.
"I am a very big supporter and believer that conservative Christians are the backbone of this society. (Foxman) thinks that the religious right is the greatest enemy of American democracy, and he's very angry at a prominent Jew who defends them."
On Monday (Dec. 4), the Council on American Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C., called on the Holocaust Council, which oversees the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, to remove Prager.
"No one who holds such bigoted, intolerant and divisive views should be in a policymaking position at a taxpayer-funded institution that seeks to educate Americans about the destructive impact hatred has had, and continues to have, on every society," the group wrote in a letter to Fred Zeidman, the council chair.
The museum, in a statement Tuesday, said Prager speaks "solely for himself."
In blogs and elsewhere on the Internet, some people fretted that Islam was taking over America.
"Mr. Ellison choosing (and being allowed) to take his oath of office on the Koran is that first step toward the Islamification of America," warned one poster on the conservative blog RiehlWorldView.com, while another chimed in that the Bible has "been good enough for Jews, Mormons and others so it's damn well good enough for him."
In Germany, Gerhard Schroeder became the country's first chancellor to pass on the Bible and simply affirmed his oath, while in Iran, religious minorities are allowed to take their oaths on scripture of their choice.
"Affirming" an oath without reference to God or sacred works is an option the founding fathers provided for in the Constitution to protect the rights of atheists and agnostics, argued Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor specializing in free speech and religious issues, on National Review Online, in response to the Prager piece.
"Why would Muslims and others not be equally protected from having to perform a religious ritual that expressly invokes a religion in which they do not believe?"
Many say prohibiting Ellison from taking his oath on the Qur’an would violate the constitutional provision that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."
Kevin J. "Seamus" Hasson, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said, "It makes no sense at all to have him violate the Constitution in order to affirm his duty to uphold the Constitution."