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Rep. Goode Launches Debate over Muslims in Office


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Republican Congressman Virgil Goode is standing by a letter he wrote to constituents, warning of an influx of Muslims and Muslim-elected officials if tighter immigration policies aren't put into place. Some have called Goode's comments bigoted, since they attack the nation's first Muslim congressman, who plans to use the Koran for his ceremonial swearing-in next week.


NPR'S Allison Keyes has this report.

ALLISON KEYES: The drama started last week, when Virginia Rep. Virgil Goode dashed off a letter to calm his constituents. Goode says that Virginians were concerned because incoming Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison has said he'll use the Koran at his ceremonial swearing in ceremony.

Representative VIRGIL GOODE (Republican, Virginia): Printed media and other media indicated that Mr. Ellison was going to use the Koran, and that generated scores and hundreds of emails to my office. And so I thought it very important to state my view. And my view is that I don't subscribe to the Koran, and I will now be using the Bible when I take the oath.

KEYES: In his letter, Goode calls Ellison the Muslim representative from Minnesota, and Goode warns Americans if they don't adopt his position on immigration, there will - his words here - likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran.

Some of Goode's constituents wrote outraged letters to a local paper. But many wrote in to support his position, saying he was trying to protect the country. At a news conference, Goode denied that he's a bigot, insisted his letter isn't discriminatory to Muslims, and refused to say whether he's against Ellison using the Koran or Muslims legally immigrating to this country. But he was sure of this.


Rep. GOODE: I do not apologize and I do not retract my letter. The letter stands for itself and I support the letter.

KEYES: Ellison, a Detroit native who converted to Islam in college, says he isn't angry about Goode's comments. But he says there's a learning gap about Muslims that needs to be closed. He also says the Koran isn't the issue.

Representative KEITH ELLISON (Democrat, Minnesota): The document that we all should focus on is not any religious text - that's personal - but the Constitution; that's where our focus needs to be. And the Constitution explicitly prohibits any government body from having a religious test for an elected official.

KEYES: Ellison declined to call Goode a bigot, saying he hasn't met him. But he did respond to Goode's comment warning of more Muslims being elected if there's no crackdown on immigration.

Rep. ELLISON: That's an interesting concept, because I can trace my ancestry in America to 1742. And so I don't see the connection between my election and illegal immigration. But I do think that what we've got to do is just continue to remind people - and sometimes even Congress people - that you know, that America stands for opportunity and inclusiveness.

KEYES: Several other Democrats, including New Jersey Congressman Bill Pascrell, responded with outrage.

Representative BILL PASCRELL (Democrat, New Jersey): This is very un-American. This is very un-patriotic.

KEYES: Pascrell dashed off a letter to Goode upon hearing about the controversy, and says he urged his Virginia colleague to apologize to the Muslim community for insulting them. Pascrell says there's nothing but prejudice in Goode's missive.

Rep. PASCRELL: It is on the - almost on the edge of being a bigoted letter.

KEYES: Pascrell says he's considering whether there's something more he and his congressional colleagues can do to show their displeasure. The House can take official action against members. Back in 1832, Ohio Congressman William Stanberry was censured for insulting the speaker of the House. Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank was reprimanded in 1990 for using his political influence to fix parking tickets. And three members were expelled from the House in 1861 for taking up arms against the United States.

The nation's largest Muslim advocacy group, the Council on American Islamic Relations, isn't calling on Congress to do anything. CAIR national legislative director Corey Saylor.

Mr. COREY SAYLOR (CAIR): You know what I'd like to see is, I'd like to see Representative-Elect Ellison take his oath, which is, you know, you raise your right hand and you take your oath, and then be allowed to go about the business of serving his district. His faith really doesn't play any role in this, nor does the faith of any other member of Congress.

KEYES: But that doesn't mean the group isn't annoyed with what Saylor calls bigotry. Saylor says he can't believe Goode was surprised that people were offended.

Mr. SAYLOR: I think this is a standard case of Islamophobia that we see fairly frequently. What's particularly disturbing is this is a sitting elected member of Congress.

KEYES: Saylor says his group is also disturbed that neither the Virginia state Republican Party nor the Republican National Committee distanced themselves from Goode's comments. Virginia GOP officials could not be reached for comment, and the RNC did not return a call for comment.

One note. Ellison would not be the first elected official to forgo the Bible for his swearing-in ceremony. Several lawmakers have used the Hebrew Bible. And in 1825, John Quincy Adams took the presidential oath using a law volume.

Allison Keyes, NPR New, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.