Monday, November 22, 2010

Charles C. Haynes: Sharia fear-mongering threatens religious freedom

  Much of the news media seemed bemused or bewildered when Sharron Angle warned of an Islamic-law takeover in America during her unsuccessful bid to unseat Sen. Harry Reid.

  Angle was widely ridiculed for citing Frankford, Texas (a town that no longer exists), and Dearborn, Mich. (with a large population of Arab-Americans living under American law), as examples of the imposition of Islamic or sharia law.

  On Election Day, Angle lost in Nevada. But a thousand miles away in Oklahoma, voters took the issue seriously and adopted a state constitutional amendment barring courts from considering sharia law or international law when deciding cases. The amendment passed with 70 percent of the vote.

  Although sharia has never been an issue in an Oklahoma court, supporters of the amendment point to England, where sharia courts can arbitrate Muslim civil disputes, provided all parties agree to participate. And they cite a New Jersey court decision that considered sharia law in denying a restraining order to a woman who alleged that her husband had raped her. That decision was swiftly overturned by an appellate court because, under the First Amendment, religion cannot excuse criminal conduct.

  First Amendment separation of church and state (including mosque and state) makes the Oklahoma amendment unnecessary. There is no danger that sharia — or any religious law — will “take over” or shape final judicial decisions in America. The campaign to outlaw sharia in Oklahoma and elsewhere is fear-mongering at its worst.

  Moreover, passing state constitutional amendments stigmatizing a particular religion may violate both the establishment and free-exercise clauses of the First Amendment. On Nov. 8, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking the Oklahoma amendment after a Muslim American filed suit (arguing that the amendment would invalidate his will, which he chose to base partially on sharia law). A hearing on a permanent injunction will be held Nov. 22.

  According to Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange, the lawsuit has a “substantial likelihood of success” because the amendment appears to have no secular purpose and has the primary effect of inhibiting a religion. It would also require state courts to determine what is and isn’t “sharia law” since there are many interpretations and applications of it within Islam. That would amount to excessive entanglement of mosque and state prohibited by the First Amendment.

  The danger of stirring unfounded fears over a nonexistent threat was on full display last week in Murfreesboro, Tenn., where several citizens were asking a court to overturn county officials’ approval of plans for a proposed mosque. The hearing was supposed to focus on whether the county followed proper procedures, but it turned into a free-for-all attack on Islam itself.

  The plaintiffs’ attorney spent six days arguing that Islam was not a religion but a political movement conspiring to replace the Constitution with sharia law. Sharia, he declared, is terrorism. This view insults millions of American Muslims who reject extreme interpretations of sharia applied in places like Saudi Arabia, and practice their faith in ways entirely consistent with American law.

  Why the judge allowed inflammatory and irrelevant testimony is beyond me. The proposed mosque site has already been vandalized and set on fire. One would think the judge would have required the plaintiffs to stick to the legal issues — and keep demagoguery outside the courtroom. Fortunately, on Nov. 17 he refused to stop construction.

  Contrary to right-wing groups fighting what they call the “Islamization of America,” no religious laws can trump the Constitution. Of course, all Americans are free to practice their faith according to the laws of their faith — as many Catholics do under Canon Law and many Jews do under Jewish law. But if and when these laws conflict with American law, American law prevails.

  Proponents of the Oklahoma amendment argue that it should stand because it’s the “will of the people,” just as opponents of the Tennessee mosque argue that it should be blocked if most people don’t want it.

  But the Framers of the Bill of Rights anticipated the danger of tyranny of the majority by putting religious freedom and other fundamental rights beyond the reach of popular opinion.

  That’s why Islam is not on trial in Oklahoma or Tennessee – the First Amendment is.

  About the author: Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web:

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