JOHN HOOD: The Religious Side of Swearing
The North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled the other day that a Guilford County woman can proceed with a lawsuit challenging the state's definition of "holy scriptures."
The Muslim plaintiff, Syidah Mateen, wanted to use the Quran instead of the Bible when swearing her oath to tell the truth.
There are only two explanations I can imagine for why a state government might wish to ask individuals about to testify in court to place a hand on holy scriptures while swearing to tell the truth.
Explanation No. 1 would be that the use of the scriptures in the courtroom invites God to intervene personally into the trial to compel truthful testimony or otherwise ensure a just verdict. In that case, it would matter a great deal which scriptures the state allows participants to use. The state can't be neutral as to the truth or falsehood of the religion in question. If Islam is bunk, then swearing on the Quran is at least irrelevant if not an act of rebellion against God.
Explanation No. 2 would be that if witnesses swear an oath while holding scriptures of deep religious significance to them, they are more likely to keep their promise. In that case, the state need not be particular about which scriptures are allowed. The state can be, indeed must be, neutral as to the truth or falsehood of the religion in question, so as to maximize truthful testimony.
Set aside for a moment the obvious point that Explanation No. 1 requires a state to endorse a particular religion and thus abrogates federal and state constitutional protections. Explanation No. 1 is also highly speculative and theologically problematic. Can one really believe that a God deserving of worship and obedience would decide whether to intervene in human affairs to advance the cause of justice based on whether his holy scriptures were present in the room?
So we are left with Explanation No. 2, that swearing an oath on the Bible is of religious significance to Christians (and Jews, if you leave out the New Testament) but of little or no significance to those of other faiths, and therefore is unlikely to increase the truthfulness of the latter group at trial.
The state's legitimate interest in pursuing justice at trial would better be advanced by allowing Muslims to swear on the Quran, or Hindus on the Vedas, or Sikhs on the Guru Granth Sahib (though they might well have their own reasons for considering such oaths impious).
If you bend over backward trying to see room for legitimate debate on this point, you might end up seeing the chiropractor, but nothing else.
So why is the issue so controversial, and politicians so willing to talk about it? I am forced to conclude that it's just pandering. It's a willful attempt to obscure the underlying facts and logic of the case while appealing to the general public's sense of excessive accommodation to Muslims and gratuitous insult against traditional Christians.
Before you lump me in with the American Civil Liberties Union on this -- the ACLU is representing Mateen, by the way -- I should hasten to add that I do think there are legitimate reasons for the mostly Christian public to be perturbed.
When fully veiled Muslim women are allowed an exception from common-sense security requirements, such as carrying a photo ID or taking off masks when using public transportation, that's excessive and corrosive accommodation.
And when the ACLU expends scarce resources on trivialities such as challenging the presence of Nativity symbols on public property during Christmastime, they are engaging in gratuitous and counterproductive insult. Allowing a manger scene in front of a public building isn't the first step on the road to theocracy.
In a free society, a judicious deference to prevailing cultural and religious norms is proper. Otherwise, why make Christmas and Easter official government holidays? Common sense and proportionality, people.
There is, however, nothing sensible or proportionate about the current practice of disallowing Muslims from swearing on their holy scriptures in a court of law.
John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of CarolinaJournal. com.
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