HARRISBURG - Talk about swearing on a stack of Bibles.

With the state sinking deeper into a fiscal hole, the Pennsylvania General Assembly bought 220 Bibles and other holy books for legislators as they took the oath of office last month.

And the public paid for them - roughly $13,700 in all.

"Holy Moses," said Eric Epstein, a Harrisburg activist and founder of RockTheCapital.org, when told about the bulk purchase. "By the time you arrive at this station in your life, you shouldn't need the taxpayers to pay for your moral boarding pass."

The House chief clerk and Senate secretary said yesterday that it was a tradition dating back decades for lawmakers to receive a personalized holy book, courtesy of the public, at the start of their terms.

Volumes were ordered for 24 of the 25 senators who took the oath last month. Officials in that chamber could not immediately provide more details yesterday.

House members got to pick from more than a dozen choices, ranging in price from $30 to $90. Each was embossed with the lawmaker's name at an additional cost of $15 per book, according to public records.

All but seven of the 203 House members received one, with 72 picking the New American Catholic Bible, making it the most popular choice.

State Rep. Chris Ross (R., Chester) got a copy of the Quran. He said yesterday that he took the Jan. 6 oath on his own Bible, but ordered the Muslim holy book because he had always wanted to read it.

State Rep. Dan Frankel also got a Quran, but it was an ordering mistake. He traded it in for another copy of the Torah - the sixth he has received from taxpayers since first being elected in 1998.

The Pittsburgh Democrat downplayed the overall cost of the books as minuscule, given that state spending this will top $28 billion. But he acknowledged that it might not send the right public message in these bad economic times.

"Everybody is looking to conserve resources," he said. "At a time like this, maybe people should be asked to bring their own scripture with them."

That's the case in New Jersey, where taxpayers do not provide Bibles for their state legislators.

Contact staff writer Mario F. Cattabiani at 717-787-5990 or mcattabiani@phillynews.com.