Dennis Prager Put in His Place
Paula Zahn Now:
ZAHN: Tonight's top story in politics, a controversy of biblical proportion. For the first time ever, voters have elected a Muslim to the House of Representatives. But when the congressman elect was asked if he will take the oath of office using a Bible, he said he'd rather use his faith's own holy book, the Koran. Some people say that's un-American.
REP. KEITH ELLISON (D), MINNESOTA: In America today, it is no longer about just smaller government and no taxes, it is about everybody counts, and everybody matters.
ZAHN (voice-over): Keith Ellison made history on election night by becoming the first Muslim ever elected to Congress. The 43-year- old Democrat and Detroit native was raised Catholic, but converted to Islam in college.
ELLISON: My name is Keith Ellison, I'm running for United States Congress.
ZAHN: He's been an attorney, a political activist and a member of the Minnesota legislature. During the campaign, he pointed out that he's neither a cleric nor a religious scholar. But after getting elected with 56 percent of the vote in a racially-diverse Minneapolis district, Ellison said he wanted to use a Koran instead of a Bible when he's sworn in next January.
Both the Constitution itself and the very first law of Congress ever passed back in 1789 require all government officials swear or affirm an oath to protect the Constitution. There's no requirement to use a Bible to administer that oath.
President George Washington on his own used a Bible at his inauguration in 1789, but the next president, John Adams was sworn in using a law book. For more than a century now, presidents have all been sworn in with the Bible.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That you will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.
ZAHN: It is different for members of Congress. They usually take their oath of office twice, first all together on the House floor, during a big opening day ceremony without a Bible.
In a statement to CNN, Ellison says the U.S. Congress will not be changing the swearing in ceremony for Representative Ellison, nor has anyone asked them to.
The most likely place where Ellison would use his Koran would be during the unofficial swearing in photo sessions with the speaker of the House.
ZAHN: The very notion of using the Koran instead of the Bible, even for swearing in, that is nothing more than a photo op has some people really upset, including one of my next guests.
Radio host and columnist Dennis Prager has written that a swearing in using the Koran would undermine the fabric of American civilization. He joins us tonight from Los Angeles, along with UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh. And here with me in New York is Daisy Khan, the executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancing. Welcome all.
Dennis, I want to start with you tonight and start off by reading a small part of the editorial you wrote, where you said "when all elected officials, take the oath of office, with their hands on the very same book, they all affirm that some unifying value system underlies American civilization. If Keith Ellison is allowed it change that, he will be doing more damage to the unity of America than the terrorists of 9/11."
How can you charge that someone expressing religious freedom would be causing the kind of damage that the 9/11 terrorists did?
DENNIS PRAGER, RADIO HOST: Well the issue isn't expressing religious freedom. As I also wrote in there, I would fight for his right to worship as a Muslim, to run for Congress as a Muslim. That's not the issue.
This is Prager's first lie. Read his column. He does not say this.
The issue is exactly as you put it earlier. What is the book that these people affirm as the central text of American life? Now some people will say the Constitution. But the Constitution derives its legitimacy from that Bible. Secular congressmen have all used the Bible. They don't believe in it.
Mormons do not ask for the book of Mormon. If a scientologist ran, would he ask for Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard)? If a racist ran, would he ask for Mein Kampf? We are starting a very unfortunate further unraveling of the fabric of American life. That's my worry.
ZAHN: Eugene, does the Constitution say anything about using a religion text when being sworn in for Congress?
EUGENE VOLOKH, UCLA LAW PROFESSOR: Well it actually does say a couple of things. First, it doesn't even require congressman to use any religious text or any religious component. It specifically provides that they may affirm, rather than swearing. That was for the benefit of people who have a religious objection to invoking God in an oath.
Quakers were a traditional example. And for example, President Herbert Hoover was sworn in without putting his hand on any book. So already we've departed from Dennis's vision of everybody swearing on the same book.
It also says no religious text shall be used for government office. And when you're required to swear on the book of a religion that is different from you, not traditionally you've done it, that would be an impermissible religious test. More importantly, the purpose of an oath....
ZAHN: ... OK, we've just lost Eugene. A quick reaction, Dennis from you, before we hear from Daisy?
PRAGER: Well, there's no religious test. The issue is what is the work that he wishes that we wish to affirm as our central text? There's no religious test. I want Muslims to run for office, I want atheists, I want Buddhists. It is no religious test of Keith Ellison. It is what decision does he wish to convey? What message to the American people? Do our values derive from the Bible or from the Koran? That is to me, the question. No religious test of Keith Ellison.
ZAHN: Does this show a disregard, do you think, on Mr. Prager's part for Muslims, Daisy?
DAISY KHAN, MUSLIM ADVANCEMENT OF SOCIETY: Well, I think the foundational values of America, our freedom of religion and freedom to express your religion and to practice in the way that you see your values. And I think what is important is this is a very proud moment for Americans, American Muslims and all Americans, and I think it is sad that somebody would try to ruin this moment for all of us by trying...
PRAGER: Am I ruining it for Mormons when I cite that Mormons don't use the "Book of Mormon". I'm not ruining -- I don't want to ruin it for anyone. I want to keep Americans united on one, basic thing. We are endowed by our creator with certain fundamental rights.
KHAN: And that is...
VOLOKH: That's not the purpose of an oath. The purpose of an oath is not affirm the correctness of the book that you use. The purpose of using a book is to invoke God as your witness and as a means of firming up your resolve to abide by the oath.
ZAHN: But Eugene, let me close with a final quote from Mr. Prager's editorial.
Let me close with this. Hang on, gentlemen, for one moment.
He says, "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."
VOLOKH: Well, for starters, the Constitution specifically says that you may refuse to use any book for. You may refuse even to give an oath. You may affirm. That's what Herbert Hoover did. Justice Goldberg, a Jewish Supreme Court Justice...
PRAGER: Herbert Hoover had a Bible.
VOLOKH: He affirmed. He didn't even swear an oath...
PRAGER: Herbert Hoover did. He just didn't swear by it, because I believe he was a Quaker. That's a very different story.
VOLOKH: Justice Goldberg used the Tanakh, the Jewish Bible.
PRAGER: Justice Goldberg used Old Testament, which is part of the American Bible.
VOLOKH: What you're saying about you have to use the same book...
ZAHN: Daisy, you get the final word tonight as we close out this...
VOLOKH: .. is already being violated.
KHAN: Well, I'm saying that America is great, and we have to uphold America's greatest values, which is coming together of all. You know, we're a multi-cultural, multi-religious society and we have to work together to create a good society. There are eight million Muslims in America now, 25 million Muslims living all over the West.
ZAHN: I understand. But you're saying he should be able to take the oath office on the Koran?
KHAN: Absolutely, because -- because, you know, an oath is something that is very important. And I think it's -- I think it's -- I think it's his integrity that he's speaking from, not a lack of integrity. And I think we should -- we should really...
ZAHN: We've got to leave it there. Sorry to have to cut you off. Commercial's ready to take us off the air.
Here's Daisy Khan, Eugene Volokh, Dennis Prager. Appreciate your time.
It sounds like Prager looked like an idiot.