TAMPA, Fla. — Just recently, we saw Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson become Justice Jackson in a historic moment, making her the first Black woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. During the short ceremony, Justice Jackson took her oaths with her left hand on two bibles.
So, we were wondering, do you have to swear in on a bible? Or even use a book at all? The Constitution explicitly lays out what you must do while taking oaths, and it has led to some politicians getting creative with how they’re sworn in.
In Justice Jackson’s case, her husband, Patrick, held both their personal family bible and the Harlan Bible. The Harlan Bible is a King James Bible that was donated to the Supreme Court by Justice John Marshall Harlan.
Harlan has been known as “The Great Dissenter” for his dissents on crucial cases like Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the idea of “separate but equal.” His bible has been signed by every succeeding Supreme Court Justice after taking the oath of office.
It’s pretty common for those taking the oath of office to use a Christian bible, but it’s not a requirement. However, because it’s so common, some have assumed that’s the rule.
Take Roy Moore’s spokesperson for example. The clip below is from 2017 when there were reports suggesting Roy Moore, a former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice, had said Muslim members of Congress shouldn’t be allowed to serve. His spokesperson says Moore believes people who practice Islam cannot serve in congress because they can not ethically swear in on a Christian bible.
However, CNN’s Jake Tapper informs him that swearing-in on a bible is not a rule, leaving Moore’s spokesperson silent.
Tapper would be 100 percent correct; the Constitution is very clear on taking the oath of office. Article six, clause three, details that members of state legislatures, executive, and judicial officers are bound by “oath or affirmation” to support the Constitution. It continues:
“No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
That basically means religion is left out entirely, and all you have to do is affirm the Constitution. You can swear in on a religious text of your choice, nothing at all, or in one politician’s case, a Dr. Seuss book.
In 2019, Kelli Dunaway, a new member of the St. Louis County Council in Missouri, took her oath of office on Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!”
Dunaway had said she was a single mom and the book’s message of empowerment had special meaning to her.
In 2014, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein decided she wasn’t going to use a book at all. During Suzi LeVine’s swearing-in ceremony, with then-Vice President Joe Biden, she used her Kindle Touch e-reader, which was opened to display the 19th Amendment. She has a background in technology and said she wanted to use a copy from the 21st century to reflect her passion for technology and hope for the future.
Other notable swearing-in ceremonies include an Athens-Clarke County commissioner using “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” and even back in 1825 when John Quincy Adams used a book of law that had a copy of the Constitution.
But, in the past, there has been backlash against those who have chosen to use religious texts that aren’t Christian.
In 2007, Keith Ellison was the first Muslim to ever be elected to serve in congress. Ellison decided he wanted to swear in on a Quran, causing some lawmakers to criticize the decision.
What’s interesting about this is that Ellison still ended up swearing in on a Quran, but not just any Quran. It was an English translation owned by Thomas Jefferson, a founding father responsible for crafting those traditional American values and beliefs. And at the end of the day, Ellison was well within his rights to do so.
So, whether it’s a Christian bible, a Dr. Seuss book, an iPad, or nothing at all, it really doesn’t matter. You could even swear in using this article as you read it right now if you wanted, as long as you’re affirming loyalty to the Constitution.