As Florida’s legislative session for 2012 rushed to a close in a blizzard of unfinished business, a bill to ban Islamic or Sharia law’s application in state courts was among those nearing a vote. The measure, called Application of Foreign Law in Certain Cases, was already approved by the House, 92-24, and seems fast-tracked in the Senate. Gov. Rick Scott was expected to sign it—if it passed.
It didn’t. After easily clearing two Senate committees (one on a unanimous vote, another on a 5-2 vote), the measure never came up for a vote on the full Senate floor. But it’s unlikely to be the last attempt at passing a so-called anti-Sharia law in Florida. “This sends a strong message that we will not tolerate legislation intended to demonize, attack, and marginalize religious minorities in America,” Hassan Shibly, executive director of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the evening the bill failed. “Our victory tonight is a great example of how the interfaith and civil rights community united can make a positive difference for all Americans.”
Meant to oppose a supposed threat to America’s judicial system — and by extension, America’s very way of life — the bill was one of about 20 similar ones working their ways through state legislatures across the country. The bills are based, almost word for word, on a model written by anti-Islamic activist David Yerushalmi, a native of South Florida now living and working in Brooklyn Heights.
Yerushalmi, along with the better-known conservative activists Frank Gaffney and Daniel Pipes, is in the forefront of a nationwide crusade promoting “a deeply mistaken portrayal of Islam … as an inherently violent ideology that seeks domination over the United States and all non-Muslims,” as described by the liberal Center for American Progress. Yerushalmi’s racist views were reported by The New York Times last July. In a 2006 essay, Yerushalmi wrote that “most of the fundamental differences between the races are genetic,” and asked why “people find it so difficult to confront the facts that some races perform better in sports, some better in mathematical problem-solving, some better in language, some better in Western societies and some better in tribal ones?” the Times reported. “He has also railed against what he sees as a politically correct culture that avoids open discussion of why ‘the founding fathers did not give women or black slaves the right to vote.'”
The bill may have triggered an ironic side-effect: It could have prevent Orthodox Jewish groups from using religious courts to arbitrate their divorces.
The Jewish Daily Forward, a newspaper published in New York, writes:
The bill’s supporters acknowledge that their proposal is aimed at Muslims. But David Barkey, an Anti-Defamation League attorney specializing in church-state issues, said that the bill will affect Jews. Because only a man can grant his wife a Jewish divorce, or get, Barkey said, a beit din —singlular for batei din — may be seen as violating state and federal equal protection principles, which bar discrimination based on gender.
“Any arbitration or ruling based on such a law is, per se, invalid,” Barkey said.
But Yerushalmi said that courts would not apply the bill to arbitration rulings by batei din because these bodies do nothing to violate constitutional principles.
More than 2,000 Orthodox families live in Florida, according to Agudath Israel of America, an ultra-Orthodox umbrella group.
Yerushalmi is himself an Orthodox Jew.
Shariah is the moral code and religious law of Islam. Organizations such as Gaffney’s “Center for Security Policy” and political candidates such as Newt Gingrich and Michelle Bachmann have repeatedly hammered the notion that gullible or spineless American judges are bowing to Islamic court rulings as part of an insidious attempt by radical Muslims to take over our institutions.
But where’s the evidence to support these fevered imaginings? Last year, Gaffney’s group published a 635-page study designed to prove that Shariah’s impact on American court cases is widespread. It listed “50 significant cases” in which “Shariah law has entered into state court decisions, in conflict with the Constitution and state public policy.”
Yet in what the study called the “top 20″ of those cases, 18 concerned foreign-born people. Fourteen dealt with divorces or child custody disputes. In eight of the 20 cases, appellate courts overturned lower courts that had cited religious-court rulings in their findings. In four more cases, the courts flat-out refused to apply Islamic law. Only six of the top 20 cases showed U.S. courts clearly backing an Islamic court’s ruling.
One “top” case turned out to be that of a U.S. court which allowed Saudi-based branches of Mobil and Exxon to sue a Saudi company under Saudi law — a law that happens to be based on Shariah.
In other words, we’re dealing with, at best, a handful of dubious court decisions. You might even call them bad decisions. But that’s not a crisis. That’s the legal system. What courtroom is ever free of the occasional bad decision?
Almost all the cases involve Muslim people who have moved here from Muslim nations, and who are trying to reconcile their customs, agreements and laws with American customs, traditions and laws. None of them suggests an effort to impose their religious precepts on anyone else.
“For all its fervor,” the Times reported, “the movement is arguably directed at a problem more imagined than real. Even its leaders concede that American Muslims are not coalescing en masse to advance Islamic law. Instead, they say, Muslims could eventually gain the kind of foothold seen in Europe, where multicultural policies have allowed for what critics contend is an overaccommodation of Islamic law.”
This anti-Shariah movement has all the earmarks of a manufactured crisis.
The Florida bill did have opponents. As the Miami Herald wrote, invoking an old jokes, “an imam, a rabbi and a pastor walked into Senate President Mike Haridopolos’ office Wednesday with two demands: Withdraw the foreign law bill they say targets Muslims, and investigate who is behind anti-Muslim booklets and flyers circulating the Senate.”
The clerics only got as far as meeting with an aide. Haridopolos was not available. Last week, he said he favors the bill because he thinks it supports the U.S. Constitution.
–Howard Goodman, Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, and FlaglerLive