August 30, 2005

Swearing oaths on the Koran

Two years ago, I was called for jury duty. I was placed in a pool of about sixty jurors for a homicide case and we had to go through a voir dire process which involves filling in a detailed and lengthy questionnaire that asked all kinds of things that the lawyers and judge could use to see if we had any factors in our background that might cause them to want to disqualify us as jurors. Before filling the forms the judge asked everyone to swear on the Bible that they would tell the truth. But she said that those of us who wanted to could swear a non-religious oath, which I think involved promising to tell the truth on pain of perjury. Only about five of us took this other oath.

This whole thing struck me as odd at that time. If we atheists (I assume that the five of us were atheists although some may have been religious but not Christian) could be trusted to tell the truth by taking a secular oath, why was it necessary to have the Christians take a religious oath? Didn't this necessarily imply that Christians were somehow less trustworthy than non-Christians, since they had to be made fearful of everlasting hell in order to compel them to tell the truth, whereas the mere threat of secular perjury charges was enough for atheists?

I was reminded of this when I saw the article in the Christian Science Monitor that said that a North Carolina judge had ruled that Muslim jurors could not swear an oath on the Koran. Needless to say, this decision is problematic.

On one hand, if you deny Muslims the right to swear on their own religious book, then you are clearly setting up a hierarchy of religious beliefs, with Christian oaths being 'better' than those based on other religions.

On the other hand, if you allow Muslims to swear on the Koran, then you may also have to allow people to swear on the holy icons of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Wiccanism, all the native American religions, and any other religion. Some scholars have advocated just that, with the Monitor article saying "according to law scholars, allowing a range of holy books in oaths of justice may not only lead to a greater feeling of inclusion among religious minorities but also encourage them to tell the truth."

But where does one draw the line about what is a religion and what is not? What if, for example, devotees of the Flying Spaghetti Monster demand the same privilege? They have already asked the Kansas School Board for equal time if Intelligent Design is included in their science standards. Deciding which religious oath to allow and which not is likely to generate a massive collective headache.

This is another example of the kind of frustrations that arise when we have religious dogmas vying for inclusion and acceptance in the public sphere. All this could be avoided if everyone was simply required to take the secular oath and be done with it, and we had a secular state where nothing in the public sphere referred to any specific religious beliefs. Then people of all faiths could practice their religion freely in their private sphere without causing friction with each other or with the state.

But this is not likely to happen in the near future because of the political influence of those groups who are determined to make the USA into an explicitly Christian nation and believe that the absence of the Christian god in the public sphere is the cause of all the evils in society. But the more they seek to have religion in the public sphere, the more likely it is that other religions will seek similar accommodations. If they are successful, the net result, paradoxically, might be that Christian symbols get surrounded by those of other religions. Once you allow Christian religious symbolism into the public sphere, I cannot see how you can reject those of other religions, unless the country gives up even the pretence of being a secular state and declares itself to be an explicitly Christian nation, amending the First Amendment in the process.


Trackback URL for this entry is: Swearing on what?
Excerpt: Neil MacFarquhar's piece on the first Muslim on Congress exits on this nervous note: Upon what holy writ will Keith Ellison swear when he takes his oath of office? Ellison himself declined to comment for the article, but other news...
Weblog: Waveflux
Tracked: November 10, 2006 02:02 PM


In 3rd grade or so my elementary school class visited a courthouse, being jewish, I asked my teacher this very question. Why should I swear on a bible in court? I don't care what it says in the bible. Why can't i swear to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me Adonai? On a Torah!? Seperation of church and state my ass. It's right there, plain as day, no gray area here.

Posted by neuman on August 30, 2005 12:24 PM

Mano -

As to making the US into an explicitly Christian nation, I have this thought:

Why are the very people who seem to think this is such a good idea raising so much fuss when Iraq decides to put a statement in their constitution that makes them an explicitly Muslim nation? Is Christianity somehow more "right" or more "fair" than Islam?

As a Christian who works has worked on social justice and human rights issues with people posessing a variety of faith backgrounds, I find it to be extremely arrogant, insecure, and hypocritical of Christian members of this country to demand religious exclusivity here while condemning it in another country.

Rather than expect every courthouse to obtain every religious artifact necessary to swear in people of every religion, why not just simplify things down to the secular vow? In the end, it is punishment for perjury that the court has control over anyway, not a person's eternal soul.

~ Liz V

Posted by Liz V on August 30, 2005 01:03 PM

In response to Neumann, it seems like the Jewish religion has a somewhat more complicated position in the US. On the one hand, people like to talk of the US having a "Judeo-Christian" heritage, and there seems to be strong support among Christian fundamentalists and end-timers for even the most hard-line Israel policies.

On the other, it is clear that Judaism, by virtue of not being Christian, falls into the category of being one of the "wrong" religions. I don't think (thought I may be wrong) that Jewish jurors can swear on the Torah, can they?

Posted by Mano Singham on August 30, 2005 05:19 PM

Liz makes two excellent points.

Whatever your religion or whatever your oath, if you lie you are charged with the same crime-perjury. So why bother to have separate oaths? But unfortunately, it is not logic that drives these things.

I also agree that if you are in favor of a theocratic state in your own country, then you cannot object to one in another, just because it is a different religion.

This is why I advocate a totally secular state with complete freedom to practice one's religion, without support or opposition from the state.

Posted by Mano Singham on August 30, 2005 05:24 PM

I agree that a secular oath makes the most sense and would cover all bases, but I'm wondering, is there anything specific in the bible that makes it a specially heinous sin to lie when swearing upon it? Is there something in the text that would make a Christian more apt to tell the truth when swearing on this book than when swearing on the yellow pages?

Or is it more of a taboo that has developed that would make it sacrilegious to lie when swearing upon a holy text?

Posted by cool on August 30, 2005 06:52 PM

Complete freedom to practice one's own religion can actually be difficult to reconcile with liberalism. What do we do with religions that involve making decisions for other people (e.g., your children) that violate some human right? I am thinking right now of the damaging genital surgery on female infants that is practiced by some rural Muslims. It is hard to be a liberal and support people's freedom to practice such indignities on other, weaker people, and yet some religions require this.

Posted by Erin on August 30, 2005 07:08 PM

Erin: remember that the First Amendment does not guarantee freedom to practice, only freedom to believe. It prohibits the government from making laws with a religious basis, but the government may still make laws that restrict behavior that happens to come up in some religious practices.

So the swearing in of jurors, witnesses, etc., using a Bible seems clearly unconsitutional to me, despite its long history. But a hypothetical religion that forbids ever telling the truth would not render a secular oath unconstitutional.

Posted by Paul Jarc on August 30, 2005 09:11 PM

Paul has a good point about the distinction between belief and practice. When I took bioethics oh those many years ago we covered another reason (at least I think it was there) why parents may be restricted from harming, or refusing treatment for, their children. It's argued that the state has an over-riding interest in maintaining the lives of minors, its future citizenry. This came up particularly when parents were christian scientists.

As liberals (I'll take that label) we have to fight the urge to accept that all beliefs are relative or equal, they clearly aren't and liberalism begins to fall apart when we pursue that line of thought. Personally I'm not a fan of any religion, but forced to choose I wouldn't randomly choose one (as one might if they were all equal). There are religions that I think are wholly unacceptable for their beliefs and others that are far more acceptable (Pastafarianism comes to mind). I think judging people on their beliefs is a necessary evil because beliefs suggest, at the very least, practice.

Posted by Cory Kates on August 31, 2005 12:30 AM

Well, one could not take an oath on an actual Sefer Torah, but there is no reason that one could not bring a Jewish Bible (Torah, Nevi'im, Ketuvim) and take an oath upon that. However, from a Jewish perspective, one must be very, very careful in doing so, as specified in the third of the "Ten Commandments":

"Lo tisa et shem HASHEM Elokekha l'shav ki lo yinake HASHEM et asher yisa et sh'mo l'shav."

Or, in English:

"You shall not take the Name of HASHEM your G-d in vain because HASHEM will not absolve anyone who takes His Name in vain."

I think that making a statement invoking purjury would be better-served than a religious oath anyway - and that goes for everyone.

Posted by William Sherwin on August 31, 2005 02:37 PM

First Amendment "Purists" are so cute". One wonders if they have ever bothered reading it.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Okay class, who shall make no law? Right! Congress. Do they read the second clause? "or prohibiting the free excercise thereof".

Another thing that is so cute about the offended irreligionists is that they are so arrogant as to assume that they sit on top of the world deciding the proper view of all things religious. Well, we should thank them all for permitting us to believe anything we want as long as our views don't touch the "public" life.

Where do they find the law that mandates "separation of church and state"? It isn't in the constitution. It is more like a religious doctrine.

Does it occur to them that they might be being a little bit hipocritical when they decide how much public religion is acceptable? Not at all, they have decided that irreligion is the highest ideal.

Well, bully for them.

Do they bother to study the history of the colonizing of this landand the religious sentiments of the vast majority of early American colonists and then citizens? Only if it includes lopsided accounts of atrocities against Native Americans.

Does it occur to them that they are in fact the minority in this land and that there is no law demanding that the majority make the minority feel like everything is fair? No, they religiously believe that fairness is the highest ideal.

If they went to Tibet they would declare that irreligion is the new state religion. They would ridicule and deny the history, the humanity and the individual of every land to make non-religion the status quo. Then they would declare themselves the mother of every sentient being, always knowing the correct beliefs and when rise up and brush their teeth.

All the while these world improvers never suspect that perhaps their policies have been tainted with their own beliefs.

They get nervous if they suspect that some god has gained public credibility. One wonders, why. Does it threaten the atheist if people honor a particular religious tradition? Does it threaten the Jew? One wouldn't think so.

Do these puritans consider that a moral, religious people can and have lived in peace in this land for nearly three hundred years with minorities of irreligion and other religions?

Will they only smile when No-god rules supreme in this land? How tolerant is that?

Posted by jake on September 7, 2005 06:16 PM