WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – A measure to ban the use of foreign laws in domestic courtrooms is progressing in Florida's statehouse, one of dozens of similar efforts across the country that critics call an unwarranted campaign driven by fear of Muslims.
Forty such bills are being pursued in 24 states, according to a tally by the National Conference of State Legislatures, a movement opponents call a response to a made-up threat of Shariah law, the Islamic legal code that covers many areas of life. Backers of the bills say they fill a glaring hole in legal protections for Americans.
"There have been all sorts of wild accusations about what this bill does," said Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, who sponsored the Senate bill in Florida. "This is very clear, very simple: In American courts we need American laws and no other."
The Florida measure passed the House on Thursday 92-24. It awaits a full vote in the Senate.
If passed, Florida would join three other states — Louisiana, Arizona and Tennessee — in approving legislation curtailing the use of foreign laws. An Oklahoma ballot measure got 70 percent approval, but it goes a step further in specifically mentioning Sharia, the Islamic system of law. A federal court has blocked the measure's implementation until its constitutionality is determined.
The twin House and Senate bills in Florida make no mention of Shariah law or any other specific foreign system. The language of the legislation, in fact, seems innocuous, outlawing the use of foreign law only when it violates rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, and only in certain domestic situations, such as divorces and child custody cases. It does not apply to businesses and says it shouldn't be construed to prohibit any religious organization from making judgments in "ecclesiastical matters."
But that's done little to quiet critics who see such legislation as right-wing fear mongering.
"It's a waste of time and irrelevant legislation," said Nezar Hamze, head of the Miami chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "But the motive behind it is very troubling."
The most fervently outspoken supporters of such bills caution Shariah law could begin to spread outside of Muslim countries in a slow-speed Islamic takeover of the world. Others, seeking to appeal to the masses, say not outlawing Shariah jeopardizes the rights of American women.
Though Shariah law was an unrecognizable term to nearly every American just a few years ago, it has become much more mainstream. Dangers of Shariah have been aired on the campaign trail, in tea party rallies and on cable news.
One of the most persistent voices on the issue is David Yerushalmi, a Brooklyn lawyer who drafted model legislation on the foreign law issue and who has waged a quiet campaign to ensure Shariah is outlawed in the U.S.
Yerushalmi's views have made him a lightning rod; he even declines to say where in Florida he lived as a child because he has family that still calls it home and he says he fears for their safety. He disputes characterizations of him as a bigot.
Yerushalmi calls Shariah "an offensive foreign law" but he says even if critics are right, and that he and other proponents of such legislation are acting on prejudice, legislatures have nothing to lose by outlawing it.
"If you're right and Shariah is everything that is good and noble and doesn't have all the ugly things that we understand it to have," he said, then such legislation simply will have no effect on the public. He notes people found to have committed adultery can be stoned under Shariah law.
The Florida bills include passages from Yerushalmi's model legislation, which was written for a group called the American Public Policy Alliance. The leader of that organization, Stephen Gele, says there are egregious court cases that have shown Shariah is a threat in the U.S., with foreign judgments on divorces and child custody allowed to stand.
"It's probably a small percentage of a court's docket, but certainly if you're the woman who lost her child to Pakistan, it's important to you," he said, citing a case in which he said a mother lost custody because of a foreign ruling.
An estimated 1.3 million Americans identify as Muslim, according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, a respected count published by Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. That amounts to fewer than 1 percent of the population nationally. Florida has a similar share.
If passed, Hamze said, Florida's legislation would have virtually no effect because he says he's not aware of the issue ever coming up in a state courtroom. He believes the message, however, would be a harmful one.
Others have come to the side of Muslim advocates, including the Anti-Defamation League, a prominent defender of Jewish causes. Andrew Rosenkranz, regional director for the ADL in Florida, issued a statement calling the bills unnecessary and saying they could jeopardize agreements reached in religious settings such as a Jewish tribunal.
"The alleged threat of Islamic, other religious or foreign law to Florida's court system is completely illusory, and the Senate's consideration of this measure is an unwise use of resources," Rosenkranz said. "At best, this bill is wholly redundant as the Florida and U.S. constitutions already prohibit the unconstitutional application of foreign law in the courts."
Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalhala, the House sponsor of the bill, did not return a call seeking comment. In floor debate on the measure Thursday, he suggested it was necessary legislation.
"With the increasing internationalization of our economy, the opportunity for foreign law to become an issue in a court proceeding in Florida is greater than ever before," he said. "It's incumbent upon the Legislature to provide guidance."
Hays said those who oppose the bill are mistaken about its intentions. He said he wasn't aware what led to the legislation's introduction — another version of it failed last year — or who might have had a role in crafting its language, which he said was ultimately put together by Metz.
"I don't care where the law comes from or who the originators of the law are," Hays said. He said those with concerns need to do just one thing to ease their fears: "Read the bill."
Associated Press Writer Bill Kaczor in Tallahassee contributed to this report.
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