Skip to site content

Swearing on Bricks

Church/state battles have been heating up, and now a local skirmish has erupted in our fair city (Greensboro, N.C.)

Some Muslims want to donate copies of the Quran to our courts so they can place their hands on their very own holy scripture when they are sworn in as witnesses. Several in our community have contributed to this debate. Conviction abounds but so does confusion.

Some, for instance, seem confused about the purpose of swearing an oath in court. Confused and conflicted we will be if we forget that the point is to compel the truthfulness of the witness and not to affirm the truthfulness of the scripture used in the ceremony. The latter is the task of preachers and teachers and has no place in a civil ceremony.

We all seem blurred about how broadly “holy scripture” can be defined in our current statute. The Bible was surely the scripture in mind when the law was written, but it can also be said that muzzle-loaders were the “arms” in mind when the Second Amendment was adopted. Those empowered to broaden the interpretation and application of this courtroom statute should do so quickly. Why put us through the agitation of litigation or legislation when granting this very limited but vital civil liberty could be accomplished now?

While well-intentioned, I doubt that donated scripture will bring clarity or resolution to this issue. It may be an unnecessary entanglement of government and religion. Courts should not become repositories for all the sacred texts of our citizens. On the other hand, I don’t see why witnesses cannot bring their own sacred text for the oath if this would promote their own truth-telling. Witnesses already have the option of affirming without a Bible. Allowing witnesses to use their own sacred text frees the court from making decisions that are expressly religious and places the religious responsibility where it belongs—on the citizen.

I laughed when I read it, but “swearing on bricks” is a Red Herring–a smokescreen. I doubt that any person standing in the presence of a judge would choose to swear on the latest edition of Sports Illustrated or on a copy of Mein Kampf. If someone did, the jury would gain a great insight into the mindset of the witness. As long as their sacred text affirms truth-telling (the point of the exercise), I say “let witnesses bring whatever ‘holy scripture’ they choose.”

I’m befuddled by the fear I see in print that implies freedom for all is a threat to some. I would argue instead that freedom for some is a threat to all. We dare not forget that the same Constitution that limits the role of government in religion protects our individual and congregational freedom to accept or reject any sacred text of our choosing. This is the freedom denied to but desired by millions. We should stop whining about the limits of civil religion and celebrate our unique religious liberty!

I have posed this question to my congregation and now to my city and country. Will we apply our cherished principles of religious freedom to all persons who seek to live peacefully among us, or will we try to use civil and social powers to restrict the influence and presence of religions that would not grant us the same freedom if the roles were reversed? I for one hope we’ll do the former even though fear drives us toward the latter.

Ken Massey is pastor of First Baptist Church in Greensboro, N.C.