Wednesday, January 17, 2007, 2:08 PM

NC Court of Apeals Allows Quran Lawsuit To Continue

On Tuesday, January 16, 2007, the North Carolina Court of Appeals issued its opinion in ACLU v. North Carolina, a case addressing whether the Quran is a "Holy Scripture" upon which witnesses and jurors may take oaths. Although the case does not involve antitrust law, the court's decision was on the front page of my local newspaper, so I decided to write a post about it.

North Carolina law mandates that a person giving an oath "shall ... require the party to be sworn to lay his hands upon the Holy Scriptures" N.C.G.S. 11-2. The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina (ACLU-NC) filed suit seeking a declaratory judgment that the term "Holy Scriptures" refers not only to the Christian Bible, but also to other religious texts such as the Quran, the Old Testament, and the Bhagavad-Gita. Alternatively, if the statute excluded these other religious texts, the ACLU-NC sought a declaratory judgment that the statue was unconstitutional under the federal and state constitutions.

The state trial court dismissed the suit after ruling that no actual case or controversy existed among the parties. The Court of Appeals, however, found that the complaint presented a justiciable controversy under North Carolina's Declaratory Judgment Act. The Court of Appeals explained that that "we are careful to express no opinion on the merits of those claims."

As was reported in the Greensboro News and Record, this case began when Syidah Mateen asked to take her oath on a Quran in a Guilford County court during a domestic-violence hearing. After being told that she could not do so because the court did not have any, Mateen and other members of Greensboro's Al-Ummil Ummat Islamic Center donated eight Qurans to Guilford County courts. Their offer was rejected, however, because the Guilford County judges determined that state law only allows for oaths on the Bible. When the Administrative Office of the Courts did not intervene, the ACLU-NC filed suit in Wake County Superior Court on behalf of its 8,000 members, some of whom are Jewish and Muslim and would prefer to take oaths on a holy text other than the Christian Bible. Mateen was later added as a plaintiff.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals addressed whether the ACLU-NC and Mateen had standing under North Carolina's Declaratory Judgment Act. The operative test was whether litigation was "unavoidable." The Court stated:

We consider this question first with respect to plaintiff Syidah Mateen. When Ms. Mateen appeared as a witness, she requested that her oath to tell the truth be sworn on the holy text of her religious faith, the Quran. When her request was denied and because she would not swear on the Christian Bible, her options were to affirm without the use of a religious text or be denied the opportunity to testify.... Ms. Mateen chose to affirm to tell the truth, and she now seeks a declaratory judgment determining whether, under N.C.G.S. § 11-2, she has the right to swear on her holy text, the Quran. Under these circumstances, Ms. Mateen clearly demonstrated her intent to avail herself of her asserted right to swear on her religious text and her intent to litigate that right. The State has clearly demonstrated, by its refusal to permit witnesses to swear on any text other than the Christian Bible, its intent to continue the course of action; thus, its actions are not speculative. The facts do not suggest any impediments to litigation that would make litigation avoidable in the absence of a declaratory judgment. Finding no impediment to litigation, we conclude that litigation between plaintiff Mateen and defendant is unavoidable.

We next consider whether an impediment to litigation exists between ACLU-NC and the State. ACLU-NC submitted affidavits from eight of its members from Guilford County, eligible for jury duty, who are Jewish and would prefer to swear on the Old Testament rather than the Christian Bible. ACLU-NC further alleged that it has approximately 8,000 members throughout the state, many of whom are of Islamic or Jewish religious faith. ACLU-NC argues that it is not a matter of “if” one of its members who would prefer to swear on a different religious text will be called to serve as a juror or witness, but rather it is a matter of “when.” We agree. ACLU-NC has sufficiently indicated that its members intend to avail themselves of their rights, and ACLU-NC has manifested an intent to litigate the issue. The State's policy is not speculative. Although it cannot be predicted exactly when or how much time will pass until a member of ACLU-NC who would prefer to swear on a holy text other than the Christian Bible is required to take an oath in court, there is sufficient practical certainty that such situation will occur. Accordingly, there is no impediment to litigation which would render litigation avoidable. Because litigation is unavoidable, the case is justiciable under the Declaratory Judgment Act, allowing ACLU-NC to obtain from the court an interpretation of N.C.G.S. § 11-2 and the rights of its members under the statute.

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