WASHINGTON – Keith Ellison, who will become the first Muslim member of Congress next month, has offended some conservatives with his plan to use a Koran during his ceremonial swearing-in.
The decision by Ellison, a Democrat, to use Islam's holy book for the ceremony instead of a Bible triggered an angry column by Dennis Prager on the Web site Townhall.com this week.
Prager headlined the post, "America, Not Keith Ellison, decides what book a congressman takes his oath on." He argued that using the Koran for the ceremony "undermines American civilization."
"Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible," he wrote. "If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress."
Conservative bloggers have picked up the criticism and run with it.
Ellison was unavailable for comment Friday, but his incoming chief of staff, Kari Moe, dismissed the brouhaha.
"I think the criticism is being flamed by the politics of division that were rejected in the '06 election cycle," said Moe, who worked for 10 years for the late Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone.
Moe noted in a telephone interview that the tradition is for all members of Congress to be sworn in together on the House floor. It is in the photo-op ceremony that a Bible is used — or, in Ellison's case, the Koran.
But Prager argued in a telephone interview that the ceremony was no less significant than the actual swearing-in.
"Oh, that's the whole point: it's exactly because it's ceremonial that it matters to me," he said. "Ceremonies matter. Ceremonies are exceedingly important. That is the way a society states what is most significant to it."
Prager argued that the issue was not about freedom of religion.
"I want Jews like myself to take the oath on the Bible, even though the New Testament is not our Bible," he said.
Asked if it would be a problem for a Jewish lawmaker to take the oath on a Bible that included only the Old Testament, Prager responded, "Yes, it would," because he said the point is to honor the "Bible of this country."
But despite writing that Ellison should not serve in Congress if he does not take an oath with the Bible, Prager said he did not think Ellison should be banned from serving.
"I don't think anything legal should be done about this," he said.
Moe said the issue was pretty straightforward.
"Religious freedom is a tradition in our country," she said.
Ellison won an open House seat in November's elections to replace longtime Democratic Rep. Martin Sabo, who is retiring.