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Raise your right hand and swear to tell the truth ... on the Koran?

Citing state law, a judge bars use of the Muslim holy book, but some say the move violates the Constitution.

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As Muslim-Christian relations are under the spotlight around the world,US judges sometimes face a vexing question: Can witnesses raise their right hand and swear to tell the truth ... on the Koran?

The recent refusal by a Guilford County, N.C., judge to allow a Muslim woman to swear upon Islam's holy text before testifying is, in part, a new First Amendment challenge. And here in the Tar Heel state, the idea of swearing on books other than the Bible has reinvigorated a debate on the relationship between faith and truth that goes back to the founding documents of both the Carolinas and the country.

Certainly, some Americans, citing the nation's Judeo-Christian roots, dislike the use of the Koran in the court system. But, according to law scholars, allowing a range of holy books in oaths of justice may not only lead to a greater feeling of inclusion among religious minorities but also encourage them to tell the truth.

"For a long time it was part of the public trust to swear on the Bible before testimony, but today you have to ask a question: Is it really essential?" asks Derek Davis, editor of The Journal of Church and State and a professor at Baylor University, a Baptist institution in Texas.

Already, witnesses in American courts do not have to take a religious oath and can instead simply testify on pain of perjury. It's up to judges to decide what passes for an oath.

Most have apparently given other oaths wide latitude. In a federal terrorism case in 1997 in Washington D.C., for instance, the judge allowed Muslim witnesses to swear to Allah. And the practice isn't new: Mochitura Hashimoto, the Japanese submarine commander who testified in the court martial of a US Navy captain in 1945, was allowed by a military tribunal to swear on his beliefs of Shinto, the ancient religion of Japan.

But to Guilford County Superior Judge W. Douglas Albright, a 1777 North Carolina law clearly says oaths are made upon the "Holy Scriptures" - which scholars agree is a clear reference to the Bible. The Administrative Office of the Courts has so far declined a request by Muslim groups to make a rule change that would force judges to allow other religious oaths.

Since Judge Albright's decision, there's been a growing number of requests by other religious groups to have their holy texts allowable under law.


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