ACLU sues over court oaths

The North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit asking the state to rule that the term “Holy Scriptures” refers not just to the Bible but to other sacred texts.

The suit stems from a Superior Court judge’s decision not to allow oaths taken on the Quran, the Muslim holy book. State law specifies that those testifying in court lay a hand on “Holy Scriptures.”

“We believe ‘Holy Scriptures’ is plenty broad enough to include multiple religious texts,” said Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the state chapter of the ACLU.

North Carolina General Statutes allow people of no religious faith to affirm that their testimony is truthful. But the ACLU argues that this option leaves out people who have a faith other than Christian and want to use their faith’s religious text.

The suit is an example of an ongoing struggle to accommodate the growing religious diversity of the state’s residents. Since the late 1960s, people of non-Christian faiths, including Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and others, increasingly have come to North Carolina.

A spokeswoman for State Attorney General Roy Cooper said she had not yet received a copy of the suit and would not comment further. The suit does not ask for damages, only a declaratory judgment.

The state legislature first passed statutes on oath-taking in 1777. At that time, the title of the statute was “Administration of oath upon the Gospels.” But in 1985, the word “Gospels” was eliminated from the section, and the term “Holy Scriptures” was substituted.

“To me, it’s clear this was an effort to be inclusive of all religious texts,” said Seth Cohen, general counsel for the ACLU, who filed the suit on behalf of the 8,000 members of the state ACLU chapter who are of many different faiths. “There’s no reason why ‘Holy Scriptures’ can’t include the Quran.”

The controversy began in Greensboro when a mosque tried to donate copies of the Quran to local courthouses. Superior Court Judge W. Douglas Albright, who sets policy for Guilford County’s nine Superior Court courtrooms, ruled that an oath on the Quran is not lawful under state law.

Erik Stanley, a lawyer with the Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based conservative law group, said the ACLU was trying to erase historic references to Christianity.

“The ACLU is not attempting to bring accommodation. That already exists,” he said. “They’re trying to erase history. Courtroom oaths have always been done on the Bible.”

But Charles Haynes, a scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., said the affirmation oath was designed for people of no faith, not for people of faiths other than Christianity.

“It gives Muslims and Jews the message, ‘You are a lesser citizen than those who put their hand on the Bible,’ ” he said. “Nobody wants to be made to feel an outsider.”

The ACLU initially asked the state court rule-making body, the Administrative Office of the Courts, to adopt a uniform policy regarding the use of holy books. In at least one instance, a Wake County juror was allowed to be sworn in last year using the Quran.

But Ralph A. Walker, director of the court administrator’s office, sent the ACLU a letter earlier this month that said the issue was not in his purview.

ACLU lawyers said they don’t think state statutes need to be changed. However, if a judge were to rule that “Holy Scriptures” did not encompass other sacred texts, the lawsuit says, the statute would be unconstitutional because it would violate the First Amendment rule prohibiting government from favoring one religion over another.

“When it comes to the use of religious texts in the courtroom, it’s an all-or-nothing proposition,” Rudinger said. “The government cannot favor one set of religious values over another, and must allow all individuals of faith to be sworn in on the holy text in accordance with their faith.”

Rudinger said many states have already eliminated Bibles in courtrooms. Instead, people take an oath by raising their hand and voluntarily adding, “So help me, God.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The News & Observer, USA
July 27, 2005
Yonat Shimron, Staff Writer

Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday July 27, 2005.
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