RALEIGH – 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 Number 1 would be that the use of the scriptures in the courtroom invites God to intervene personally in 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 Qur’an is at least irrelevant if not an act of rebellion against God.
Explanation Number 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 Number 1 requires a state to endorse a particular religion and thus abrogate federal and state constitutional protections, as a Guilford County plaintiff argues in a lawsuit that, thanks to a new decision from the N.C. Court of Appeals, is about to go to trial. Explanation Number 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. That would be unjust, and thus contradictory to the nature of God (by definition, I don’t mean to limit this to the Biblical God of Christianity).
So we are left with Explanation Number 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 goal would better be advanced by allowing Muslims to swear on the Qur’an, or Hindus on the Vedas, or Sikhs on the Guru Granth Sahib (though they might well have their own reason for consider such oaths impious).
If you bend over backwards 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.
I part with the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union here because I do think there are legitimate reasons for the 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. Time to wash this ban right out of our hair and move on. Rinse and repeat as needed.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.