Idaho Congressman Apologizes for Remarks About Muslim Colleague

U.S. Rep. Bill Sali has apologized to a Muslim colleague for remarks suggesting the nation's founders never intended for Muslims to serve in Congress.

In the interview with the Christian-based American Family News Network, Sali, a Republican freshman from Idaho's 1st District, referred to his U.S. House colleague Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who last fall became the first Muslim elected to Congress.

The Aug. 8 report also includes Sali questioning the wisdom of Senate leaders, who last month invited a Hindu clergyman to give the morning prayer in the chamber.

"We have not only a Hindu prayer being offered in the Senate, we have a Muslim member of the House of Representatives now," Sali is quoted as saying on the network's Web site. "Those are changes, and they are not what was envisioned by the Founding Fathers."

The comments sparked criticism from liberal bloggers and Idaho Democrats. A former Idaho Democratic congressman called for Sali to either apologize or resign.

Sali responded days later, sending Ellison an e-mail explaining he meant no offense.

"He said that he wanted to make sure that Congressman Ellison understood that he meant no harm or disrespect," Sali spokesman Wayne Hoffman said.

Hoffman declined to release a copy of the e-mail, saying it was a private communication.

Ellison is traveling outside the country, but his spokesman said the congressman typically doesn't take such remarks personally.

"We will take Bill Sali at his word," Rick Jauert said Friday. "That would be in keeping with Keith's turn-the-other-cheek mentality. He figures if someone has a bad day, chooses their words poorly, we'll give them the benefit of the doubt."

A spokesman for a national Islamic civil rights group said the organization is satisfied with Sali's response.

"Obviously we wish it hadn't occurred in the first place," said Ibrahim Hooper, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, based in Washington D.C. "But we think he did the right thing. We hope he will have learned a little more about the American Muslim community and will be more sensitive about his comments in the future."

Idaho Democrats have not been so forgiving.

Last week, Richard Stallings, state Democratic Party chairman and a former 2nd District congressman, suggested Sali should resign. And Democrat Larry Grant, who is opposing Sali in the 2008 election, wrote Ellison a note calling Sali's comments "thoughtless and uninformed."

But Hoffman blamed Democrats, bloggers and other critics for failing to see the whole picture behind the comments or consider Sali's previous comments supporting religious freedom.

Hoffman also said Sali does not intend to back down from his belief that America was founded on Christian principles, and that those principles should be embraced and give the nation its strength.

"He was trying to make a historical observation," Hoffman said.

Sali is no stranger to commentary deemed insensitive, inappropriate or just plain silly by others. In his 16 years in the Idaho Legislature, Sali led his party's wing of social conservatives. Last year he drew criticism for linking abortion to breast cancer rates during debates on the House floor.

Earlier this year, Sali, in protest of legislation to raise the federal minimum wage, introduced the Obesity Reduction and Health Promotion Act that sought to repeal the law of gravity. In explaining his bill, Sali said he was simply trying to make a point that laws to dictate wages and reduce gravity would both defy "natural laws."