Jacob Henry, a Jew who was elected to North Carolina's legislature in 1808, but was blocked from taking his seat by a law requiring him to accept the divinity of the New Testament, posed the following rhetorical question:
"Will you drive from your shores and from the shelter of your constitution all who do not lay their oblations on the same altar, observe the same ritual, and subscribe to the same dogmas? If so, which among the various sects into which we are divided shall be the favored one?"
As if to demonstrate that intolerance once practiced against Jews can also be practiced by some Jews against other minorities, a Jewish right wing talk show host named Dennis Prager led a campaign to disallow the first Muslim elected to Congress (in November 2006) to take an oath of office on the Koran. Prager insisted that Congressman Keith Ellison:
"'should not be allowed to do so - not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American civilization,' Prager argued. 'Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, 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,' he wrote."
Prager's bigotry was immediately condemned by Jewish organizations across the ideological spectrum. This is what the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai Brith said:
"Prager is flat-out wrong when he asserts that Representative Ellison's use of a Koran would be 'damaging to the fabric of American civilization.' To the contrary, the U.S. Constitution guarantees that, 'no religious test shall ever be required' to hold public office in America. Members of Congress, like all Americans, should be free to observe their own religious practices without government interference or coercion.
Prager's patriotic prattling is misinformed on the facts, too. No Member of Congress is officially sworn in with a Bible. Under House rules, the official swearing-in ceremony is done in the House chambers, with the Speaker of the House administering the oath of office en masse. No Bibles or other holy books are used at all. Members may, if they choose, also have a private ceremony with family and friends. At these unofficial ceremonies, Members frequently solemnize the event by taking an oath while holding a personal family Bible.
Prager ridiculously asserts that permitting Rep. Ellison to take the oath of office would 'be doing more damage to the unity of America and to the value system that has formed this country than the terrorists of 9-11.' What he fails to understand is that what truly unifies all Americans is a value system built on religious freedom and pluralism, not dogmatism and coercion.
Prager presents intolerant, ugly views. His comparison of Ellison's desire to "choose his favorite book" to that of the right of a racist elected to public office to use Hitler's Mein Kampf is outrageous.
Not to be outdone, former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who was removed from the bench for refusing to obey a federal court order to remove a monument featuring the 10 Commandments from the Alabama Supreme Court building, said the following:
"Enough evidence exists for Congress to question Ellison's qualifications to be a member of Congress as well as his commitment to the Constitution in view of his apparent determination to embrace the Quran and an Islamic philosophy directly contrary to the principles of the Constitution. But common sense alone dictates that in the midst of a war with Islamic terrorists we should not place someone in a position of great power who shares their doctrine. In 1943, we would never have allowed a member of Congress to take their oath on 'Mein Kampf,' or someone in the 1950s to swear allegiance to the 'Communist Manifesto.' Congress has the authority and should act to prohibit Ellison from taking the congressional oath today!"
Now, to cap it off, a Congressman has actually said that he would disallow Ellison from taking his seat because of his request to swear in on the Koran. According to The New York Times, Representative Virgil H. Goode Jr. (R-VA), in a letter to his constituents, said that voters must "wake up" or else there will "likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran." Of course Congressman Ellison will be allowed to take the oath of office. The question should be whether Congressman Goode will be allowed to take his oath and sit in his elected office. He has, after all, violated his oath of office, in which he promised to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States," which intentionally and emphatically prohibits any and all religious tests.
Alan Dershowitz is a professor of law at Harvard. His most recent book is Preemption: A Knife that Cuts Both Ways (Norton, 2006).