A recent controversy over which "Holy Scriptures" on which Muslims must place their hands when swearing to tell the truth threatens to shake the biblical foundations of the state of North Carolina. When finally resolved, it might also set a precedent that sends aftershocks across the nation.
A couple of years ago Syidah Mateen asked a judge if she could use the Quran instead of a Bible as the foundation for her oath to testify truthfully. The judge wasn't sure whether that was legal, so he had her simply affirm to tell the truth and asked for a higher opinion on the legality of using the Quran. Guilford County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge W. Douglas Albright, a strict constructionist jurist, ruled that "An oath on the Quran is not a lawful oath under our law" and added that "Everybody understands what the holy scriptures are. If they don't, we're in a mess."
The ruling that "Holy Scriptures" could only refer to the Bible quickly generated criticism that the court was endorsing a particular religion and thereby violating the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. North Carolina's Administrative Office of the Courts was asked to determine the validity of Albright's ruling. That office, however, has been dragging its feet. Last month, State Supreme Court Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake, Jr. said he had no idea when the agency would decide how to address the issue. In August, the ACLU filed suit to get a decision.
There were reasons for the state's procrastination. One is simply the press of ordinary business. Another reason is that those who insist that the U.S. is a "Christian Nation" will not take any ruling permitting the use of scriptures other than the Bible lightly. As Michele Combs, communications director for the Christian Coalition, said, "Some traditions that we've had for 200 years need to stay."
The Christian Coalition's opposition to the plurality of scriptures in courtrooms fits hand in glove with the goals of the political revolution that it has been helping to achieve through patient and methodical grassroots politicking. What is gradually being overthrown is the First Amendment's guarantee that the government will treat people of all faiths and of no particular faith with equal dignity and respect.
After a quarter-century effort, the Religious Right has secured a majority of the legislators and chief executives of our state and federal governments. Their presidents and governors and legislators are busy stacking the country's judiciary with "strict constructionist" jurists like U.S. Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts who may eventually confirm Albright's ruling–no matter what North Carolina's courts eventually decide.
Undoubtedly, it is true that virtually all of the original inhabitants of North Carolina understood "Holy Scriptures" to refer to the Christian Bible. Equally indisputable is the fact that many of the current citizens of that state no longer accept the Christian Bible as "Holy Scriptures."
If constitutions are understood to be "living documents," then the purpose of the oath could serve as a guide to interpretation. Since the purpose of the oath is to help secure truthful testimony, "Holy Scriptures" could refer to the most sacred text of the person making the oath.
Strict constructionist jurists, however, disdain any thought that constitutions could be living documents. In their opinion, the original meaning of the words "Holy Scriptures" will prevail until Muslims and others successfully convince their Christian neighbors to change the state constitution.
In effect, by simply affirming that "some traditions that we've had for 200 years need to stay," the Religious Right is assuring that the forever contentious debate about liberty of conscience and freedom of religion moves from the principled and reasoned discourse of the courtroom to the passionate and inflamed rhetoric of the public square.
Unlike the strict constructionists, the founders of our republic were fully aware of the volatile nature of the differences that arise when religious beliefs and practices are imposed by force of law. That is why they forbade Congress to pass any laws establishing a religion or prohibiting its free exercise.
Bruce Prescott is executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists. This column also appears in Mercer University's "Baptist Studies Bulletin."