The historical and legal basis for oaths is often misunderstood. As with many of our legal traditions, the role of the legislative oath was inherited from England, where its original purpose was anything but inspiring. In the 16th century, the crown used legislative oaths to disqualify any member who did not recognize the king as both the spiritual and temporal sovereign – an effective ban on any faithful Catholic serving in Parliament.
The abuse of the oath as a method of excluding certain faiths (or forcing homage to another’s faith) was opposed by the framers of the U.S. Constitution, which bans any religious qualifications for service in Congress.
It is rare for oath controversies to reach the courts. One notable exception was the Georgia oath. In 1965, Julian Bond (the first African-American to serve in the Georgia Legislature after Reconstruction) was elected and took an oath to uphold the Constitution. Georgia legislators refused to let him serve, citing his opposition to the war in Vietnam as proof that he was not sincere in his oath. The Supreme Court ruled for Bond, holding that no one could judge the sincerity of a member without showing that he had made a clear disavowal of the oath.
The recent call of a religious test for legislators constitutes a reversal of roles for the United States and Britain, where the use of such abusive oaths was abandoned long ago. In Britain, members may use their own religious books to swear faithful service, and the Quran is often part of these ceremonies. Notably, while the United States is just getting its first Muslim member in the House of Representatives, there are four Muslim members of the House of Commons and five in the House of Lords.
The first Muslim in the House of Lords is believed to be the Baroness Pola Uddin, who said that she is “proud to have taken my oath with my hands placed on the Holy Quran,” and that the right to swear according to one’s own faith “is one of the inalienable rights amongst thousands that make Britain a great country.”