In the days after the elections, Rep.-elect Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who’s poised to become the first Muslim to serve in Congress, was asked if he’d take the Congressional oath of office on a Bible.
Ellison, a convert to Islam, said he’d opt instead for a Quran, setting the stage for a first of historical proportions.
But while he’ll still have the option of holding a Quran should he choose to participate in a subsequent ceremonial photo-op, the official oath of office, which takes place Jan. 3 on the House floor, will be, as always, a decidedly ecumenical affair.
“They don’t even have a Bible present,” said Salley Collins, spokeswoman for the House Administration Committee.
The 440 House Members (including nonvoting Delegates and a Resident Commissioner) are sworn in en masse on the House floor by the Speaker. Their pledge to uphold and defend the Constitution concludes with the generic “So help me God.”
Following the floor activity, the practice in previous Congresses has been for Members who so wished to “get their names on a schedule to have a private [ceremonial] swearing-in” with the Speaker, at which their family can take photos, said Deputy House Historian Fred Beuttler.
Often, a minister or religious leader joins the Member for this “informal ceremony,” Beuttler added.
In the Senate, Members repeat the same oath as in the House, although they are sworn in in small groups. There’s no official Bible present, but “some carry their personal Bibles with them” down to the front of the chamber where they are sworn in by the vice president (or the President Pro-Tem if the vice president is not in attendance), said Associate Senate Historian Don Ritchie.
Afterward, they “go down to the Old Senate Chamber and re-enact the swearing in” for the cameras. (Photos are not allowed on either the House or Senate floors.)
Bridget Cusick, a spokeswoman for Ellison, said no decision had been made yet as to any private swearing-in ceremony. Ellison, she said, had raised the issue of the Quran in the first place only because a reporter had asked him whether he would use a Bible. “It wasn’t a thing where he brought it up and made it a thing,” she said.
Other Members-elect are set to make history: Two Buddhists will take seats in the 110th Congress, Democratic Reps.-elect Hank Johnson (Ga.) and Mazie Hirono (Hawaii). Neither has any plans to incorporate Buddhist sacred texts into the ceremonial swearing in, aides said.
Johnson, who has been a practicing Buddhist for about 30 years but prefers to keep his faith a private matter, will use a Bible for his photo-op, said spokeswoman Deb McGhee Speights. “He’ll go the traditional way” as he has done in previous swearing-in ceremonies for other offices.
Meanwhile, the Japanese-born Hirono was raised in a family that belonged to the Jodo Shu sect of Buddhism but does not practice daily. An aide said Hirono has no plans to use any religious text in the swearing-in ceremony.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.