Scriptures Lawsuit Places Focus on Pluralism in America

A lawsuit in North Carolina asking that religious texts other than Bible to be used in court for swearing in has highlighted the challenges one city is experiencing as the nation becomes more diverse.

In Greensboro, North Carolina, a suit was filed recently stating that denying the use of other religious books in court would go against the Constitution by favoring Christianity over other faiths.

The controversy began when a mosque in Greensboro attempted to donate Qur’ans to local courthouses. However a Superior Court judge ruled that taking oaths on Qur’ans was unlawful under state law.

In early July, as the matter of a lawsuit still simmered outside of court, the Rev. Mark Sills, a United Methodist pastor who serves as executive director of the interfaith group FaithAction said he felt the Qur’an case "struck us as an issue that needs to be confronted."

At the time, he posited a situation in which Christians found themselves living in a place where taking an oath on a Bible was not allowed.

"That just feels like a slap in the face," he said, according to the News Record.

Greensboro has previously faced tensions as its residents have come to live in an increasingly pluralistic city. In 2001, Rev. Sills said that the city had four mosques, two Buddhist temples and a thriving Hindu temple.

However, after September 11, the Reverend said the attacks left a "general unrest and fear within the immigrant community," according to a 2001 report by the United Methodist Church. One result of this was a large public rally where hundreds expressed grief and solidarity with the victims.

As Greensboro mourned along with the nation and much of the world, Rev. Sills said the community pledged it would not be divided and allow anger "to turn into retaliation against our own neighbors." He said that hundreds signed a pledge of unity.

The case this month has once again brought those tensions to the fore. The suit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, a group often noted for its liberal stances on various high profile issues.

Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the state chapter of the ACLU said that the case over the use of religious texts for the swearing in of witnesses was a matter of understanding the definition of "Holy Scriptures" in North Carolina law to mean more than just the Christian Bible.

"We believe 'Holy Scriptures' is plenty broad enough to include multiple religious texts," she stated.

North Carolina Law currently allows witnesses who are about to testify to take an oath over a "Holy Scripture," or by saying "so help me God" without a religious text, or with no religious symbols.

Before 1985, the words "Holy Scriptures" replaced the word "Gospels."

Seth Cohen, general counsel for the ACLU, who filed the suit for the 8,000 members of the state's ACLU said the replacement of "Gospels," was "an effort to be inclusive of all religious text ... There's no reason why 'Holy Scriptures' can't include the Qur’an," he told the News Observer.

Before the suit was filed, Cohen said that legislators had a deliberate purpose. “They’ve made an effort to take the Christianity out of it,” he said, according to the News-Record.

A lawyer with Christian law group the Liberty Counsel said the suit was not simply intended to include other faiths.

"The ACLU is not attempting to bring accommodation. That already exists," stated Erik Stanley of the Florida-based group. "They're trying to erase history. Courtroom oaths have always been done on the Bible."

The ACLU argues that the text of the law need not be changed, just allowed to be inclusive of books other than the Bible under the term "Holy Scriptures." It argues that failing to do so would be unconstitutional because it would violate the First amendment.

The Rev. Mark Sills urged the community to learn to get along and respect their differences. "It is imperative for our civic leaders, school teachers, judges, and law enforcers to appreciate and respect the religious differences found in our population."

As part of FaithAction, a group with more than 20 religious leaders of various faiths from the Greensboro area, the Rev. Mark Sills sees that North Carolina is an increasingly diverse place where there is room for respecting differences, but not to the point of neglecting one's own faith.

"In North Carolina, we continue to be people who take our religious beliefs and practices very seriously. But we no longer live in the Bible Belt," he said according to the News-Record.

Citing various texts from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Baha'i faiths, he said society must be more respectful and recognize that there is a new "Belt."

"Today, we live in the Bible-Talmud-Qur'an-Veda-Dhammapada-Guru Granth Sahib-Kitabiiqan Belt," the he said. "It is imperative for our civic leaders, school teachers, judges, and law enforcers to appreciate and respect the religious differences found in our population."