By Trevor Brown
The Norman Transcript
OKLAHOMA CITY — Strained religious tensions and calls to pre-emptively protect the state’s court system characterize one of the more unusual state questions that will be on the ballot this November.
Religious groups and some lawmakers claim xenophobia is at the root of State Question 755, which would amend the state Constitution to forbid courts from considering international or Islamic Sharia law in making decisions.
Sharia law is based on the teaching of the Quran and practiced in different way in several Muslim countries.
Supporters of the measure, however, argue it is needed to prevent Sharia law from potentially gaining power in the state’s juridical system.
Rep. Rex Duncan, R-Sand Springs, said he authored the legislation that spurred the ballot measure because he argues Sharia law provisions that are practiced in some countries — such as the unequal treatment of women — run in contrast with American principles. Although he is not aware of any Oklahoma courts making decisions based on Sharia law, he said actions by other countries and isolated events in the United States show this is a growing threat and action needs to be taken before it reaches Oklahoma.
“This effort is all about protecting our court system from being hijacked by an ideology that does not have America’s long-term future in mind,” he said. “Our courts ought to follow American federal and state law, and there is no logical reason why a court would look to the law of France or Saudi Arabia.”
Several groups, including the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, have been vocal in opposing the measure on the grounds that it is unnecessary and only fans the flames of religious intolerance. Saad Mohammed, director of Islamic information for the group, said he finds the measure “very questionable” for singling out the Islamic law instead of any other religion.
“There was nothing to ever instigate this,” he said. “I feel it was brought up generally as being against Muslims and it is targeting us by specifying (banning) Sharia law. So I think it is a (state question) that is against us and against our way of living.”
What the effect would be
Although the ethics and legality of including language in the state question that bans Sharia law and not other religious-based laws can be debated, a constitutional expert said the true impact the passage of the measure will have on the court system is minimal at best.
Andrew Spiropoulos, an Oklahoma City University law professor who directs the school’s Center for the Study of State Constitutional Law and Governments, said there haven’t been problems in the past with courts ruling on cases using Sharia law and he doesn’t envision how the state question would really change the way courts are required to act.
He said situations where using Sharia law could possibly arise are in arbitration proceedings, such as divorces cases, where the parties agree to use Sharia law in making the decision. Spiropoulos said even if the state question is passed, arbitration cases could still continue because state and federal laws still provide for them. By not specifically arguing something should be decided on Sharia law, there are a lot of other ways judges could theoretically still rule on these type of cases, he said.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s Sharia law, Jewish law or whatever else you might call something,” he said. “So the real issue is that there really is no practical effect to it.”
And extreme cases, such as recently in New Jersey when a family judge rejected a woman’s request for a restraining order on her sexually abusive Moroccan husband, Spiropoulos said courts can’t use Sharia law to rule on something that is illegal. The New Jersey case eventually was overturned on appeal.
He added because the question specifically names Sharia law as the only type of religious law to be banned, it could open up the possibility for legal challenges arguing it is religious discrimination.
“You just can’t favor one religion over another just because you like one better,” he said.
Support and opposition
Ada resident Orvil Harris, who is active in the Islamic Society of Ada, said the state question is unnecessary and counterproductive in strengthening U.S.-Islam relationships that have deteriorated since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He said supporters of the issue are using scare tactics instead of helping educate people about the religion.
“I don’t think there needs to be something like this now,” he said. “I’m interested in what is going on in this country, and I don’t want to do anything to make Islam objectionable.”
Rep. Lewis Moore, R-Arcadia, said he views the criticism against the state questions as unfounded. He said Sharia law is a threat to the country that needs to be addressed.
“Are we not at war with this ideology?” he asked. “Are we not at war with them? Then why would we give in to this?”
The legislation — House Joint Resolution 1056, also referred to as the “Save our State” resolution — that created the state question passed 82-10 in the House and 41-2 in the Senate during the 2010 session. Rep. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater, who was one of the 12 lawmakers to oppose the measure, said the ambiguous wording of the state question could potentially complicate legal dealing for American Indian tribes and multinational corporations.
In addition, Williams said he doesn’t see how the state question would change how judges act, except for complicating matters for the courts and contributing to religious intolerance.
“If I was a Muslim Oklahoman, I would be offended by my religion being singled out,” he said. “Some people buy into the whole butterfly theory that if a judge in Europe flaps his wings and adopted Sharia law then it will come to Oklahoma. I, on the other hand, do not.”
Trevor Brown writes from the Oklahoma statehouse for CNHI News Service and The Transcript. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.