N.C. Judge Forbids Quran in Witness Swearing In
SCOTT SIMON, host:
The original meaning of a section of the North Carolina State Constitution is under new scrutiny. A Superior Court judge in Guilford County is refusing to allow Muslim witnesses to swear to the truthfulness of their testimony with one hand on the Koran. A local Islamic center recently donated Korans to be used in county courtrooms, but Judge W. Douglas Albright said an oath taken on a Koran is simply not lawful under state law. The county's chief district judge is also refusing to allow an oath taken on the Koran. North Carolina's Constitution was ratified in 1777 and says witnesses must lay a hand on the Holy Scriptures or affirm their truthfulness before testifying. Now a range of religious leaders in Guilford County is calling on the courts to expand the definition of Holy Scriptures to include texts from all religious traditions. Eric Collins has been covering this story for the Greensboro News & Record, and he joins us from WFDD in Greensboro.
Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. ERIC COLLINS (Greensboro News & Record): It's good to be here.
SIMON: Now other judges in North Carolina, and for that matter other parts of the nation, have allowed witnesses to swear an oath on the Koran. Help us understand why Judge Albright says that he doesn't believe that's legal.
Mr. COLLINS: Well, he said that the Holy Scriptures, as you mentioned, refers only to the Christian Bible. He told me, quote, "Everybody understands what the Holy Scriptures are. If they don't, we're in a mess." Now he said he wasn't disparaging any other holy books and that if state legislators wanted to change the language, they could do that.
SIMON: What was the case that prompted the Islamic center to send Korans to the courthouse?
Mr. COLLINS: Well, a local Muslim woman named Sayida Matine(ph) had been in court two years ago when she had a conversation with a district court judge, Tom Jerrell(ph). She had asked Jerrell if she could swear on the Koran before testifying, and he simply did not have one for her to swear on. And she walked away from that conversation believing that Judge Jerrell was asking her to find Korans to donate to the courtrooms. That led to the issue surfacing last month.
SIMON: Now in theory, people who didn't want to swear on what is euphemistically called the Bible could affirm?
Mr. COLLINS: Yes. Yes, they can affirm. And the concern I've heard from Miss Matine as that she felt as if a jury might judge her for not swearing on a holy book, that they might think that she was not going to tell the truth. So she wanted the chance to do that.
SIMON: Has anyone brought up the concern, Mr. Collins, that if you begin to open up the definition of sacred texts, you'll have people bringing in Star Wars or Harry Potter, saying, `This is sacred to me'?
Mr. COLLINS: There is definitely a concern that someone could bring in a brick and claim that they have a religious affiliation with brick walls. So yes, there's definitely a concern about that, whether that's practical or not. Our own newspaper had written an editorial this week that basically said that's probably the rarest of cases where that would come up.
SIMON: Now the state's Administrative Office of the Courts is expected to issue a directive. What are the range of possibilities they would have?
Mr. COLLINS: Well, initially it seemed that they were heading to tell all judges how they should treat this issue and make it a uniform policy. Since those early statements, it seems as if they may have backed off a little bit, and there's a possibility they may do nothing in this issue at all and just let anyone who wants to challenge the issue take it up in the form of a lawsuit or ask the state legislators to change state law.
SIMON: And in fact, the Islamic center there in Guilford County is contemplating legal action, isn't it, and the American Civil Liberties Union has expressed themselves in support of that?
Mr. COLLINS: In relation to the ACLU, I did have a conversation with one of the Muslim leaders, and he basically said that he was hesitant to have the ACLU involved because this Islamic group does not want religion out of society altogether, and he feels as if the ACLU might use this opportunity to further their goals rather than the Islamic organization's goals.
SIMON: Any indication this issue is larger than Guilford County?
Mr. COLLINS: Well, as far as I understand, there is precedent in the federal courts allowing Muslims to use the Koran for oaths. Some have said from Washington--a Washington-based Islamic civil rights organization, one of their lawyers had said that Judge Albright's statements hint at favoring one religion over another, and that would be a violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, an issue that could work its way up the federal ladder.
SIMON: Mr. Collins, thank you very much.
Mr. COLLINS: My pleasure.
SIMON: Eric Collins at the Greensboro News & Record.
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