A lawsuit that could determine whether Muslims, Jews and other non-Christians can use the holy texts of their faith to affirm courtroom testimony can move forward, the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.
The decision means the controversy that started three years ago when a Guilford County Muslim was not allowed to use a Quran will likely go to trial.
"I'm just excited that we're going to be back in court," said Syidah Mateen, who sparked the debate. "We got over one hurdle."
State law describes laying one's hand on "Holy Scriptures" to take an oath â€” and it's that phrase that is at issue. The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina argues it is broad enough to include the holy texts of Islam, Judaism and other faiths.
"All we want is people to be allowed to use the holy book of their faith," said Seth Cohen, lead attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina, which initially filed the lawsuit against the state.
Some judges in the state have allowed people to take their oaths on the Quran, but that is rare. State law also allows people to affirm their testimony by raising their right hand without using the Bible.
In August 2003, Mateen asked to take her oath on a Quran in a Guilford County court during a domestic-violence hearing. The 42-year-old Browns Summit woman was told she couldn't because the court didn't have any.
Believing she had the approval of the judge, Mateen shared her experience with other members of Greensboro's Al-Ummil Ummat Islamic Center, which then raised money to buy and donate at least eight Qurans to the Guilford County courts.
But when the Islamic center tried to deliver the holy books in 2005, the offer was rejected by the county's two top judges, who contended that state law only allows for oaths on the Bible.
When the Administrative Office of the Courts did not intervene, the ACLU of North Carolina filed a lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court on behalf of its 8,000 members, some of whom are Jewish and Muslim. Mateen was later added as a plaintiff.
In December 2005, Judge Donald L. Smith tossed the case out, ruling that both the ACLU and Mateen failed to show a legal controversy existed with the state. A three-judge panel of the appeals court disagreed.
"We conclude the complaint is sufficient to entitle both plaintiffs to litigate their claims," Chief Judge John Martin wrote in the unanimous opinion.
Cohen said the ACLU's position is that if the "Holy Scriptures" phrase in state law is not broad enough to include texts other than the Christian Bible, then it is unconstitutional and should be struck down under the First Amendment's establishment clause. But the ACLU thinks there is room under the existing law to include the Hebrew Bible, the Quran and other sacred books.
Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office, said lawyers with the state were reviewing the appeals court decision and had not yet decided whether to ask the N.C. Supreme Court to take up the matter. The state has 30 days to appeal the decision.
Without an appeal, a trial would likely be several months away, Cohen said.