Last week one of the incoming members of the House of Representatives was sworn in with her hand on a copy of the Koran.
Rashida Tlaib, recently elected from Michigan, took the oath of office using a 1734 copy of the Quran that had belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi swore in Tlaib, who promised to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic."
For much of U.S. history, members of Congress, along with countless witnesses in court, state and local officials and presidents have chosen to swear on a copy of the Bible when taking their oaths. However, Jefferson's Quran joined more than a dozen other religious and nonreligious texts that were used by newly elected representatives and senators to take their oaths. In addition to Tlaib, fellow Muslim Ilhan Omar, a Democratic representative from Minnesota, also chose a Quran. Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona used a law book that contained both the U.S. and Arizona constitutions.
Jefferson's Quran was first used during an oath of office in 2007, when Keith Ellison of Minnesota became the first-ever Muslim member of Congress and chose to use Jefferson’s historic Quran to take his oath. Despite the language in the Constitution, his choice of the Koran caused controversy, particularly within the Christian Right, who argued that the Bible was the only text that could be used to swear the oath of office.
There have been other examples of officials not using the Bible. In 2014, Suzi Levine, the then-incoming ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, swore her oath of duty on a Kindle. Four years later, Mariah Parker was sworn in on a copy of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” when she took her oath as Athens-Clarke County commissioner in Georgia.
In 2013, Tulsi Gabbard became the first Hindu member of Congress and was sworn in with her hand on a copy of the Bhagavad Gita (meaning “the song of the Lord” in Hindi)
There are at least three known incidences in which presidents did not use a Bible. Both President John Quincy Adams and Franklin Pierce were sworn in on a book of a law. Because no Bible could readily be located, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt took his oath of office without any oath-object at all.
Even though the Bible has traditionally used, the Constitution contains no requirement that the Christian text or for that matter, any other text or object be used. Article VI, Clause 3 of the Constitution requires that senators and representatives "be bound by Oath or Affirmation" to support the Constitution. Interestingly, that same clause also states "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." In addition, the Constitution makes it clear that the oath can be replaced with an "Affirmation”, such as “I affirm…” rather than “I swear…”
So, where did the use of the Bible as part of a swearing in ceremony originate? Most likely it came from ninth-century England. At that time, there was a lack of formal governmental centers, so altars of churches were often used as courtrooms for oaths and contracts. Over the centuries, this tradition migrated to English courtrooms and from there into American legal ceremonies. It was George Washington who established the tradition that presidents be sworn in using a Bible.