The state Senate on Friday passed a bill that would keep courts from recognizing Sharia law. While proponents of the legislation said it would keep people safe from foreign laws, critics derided the bill as sending a message of intolerance and bigotry to followers of Islam.
The Senate had already approved the measure when it was attached to a controversial measure that would impose stricter regulations on abortion providers in the state. But the foreign law provision wasn’t sufficiently critiqued because abortion overwhelmed the floor debate, said Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Democrat from Durham.
Now called House Bill 522, the provision’s contents haven’t changed. It reminds judges that the U.S. and N.C. constitutions are the law of the land and no foreign law can supersede them. Sometimes international laws are used in court as evidence before a judge, or in written opinions. But this bill would stop judges from considering foreign law when it violates a citizen’s constitutional rights.
“Unfortunately we have judges from time to time … that sometimes seem to forget what the supreme law of the land is, and sometimes make improper rulings,” said Sen. E.S. “Buck” Newton, a Wilson Republican and the legislation’s Senate sponsor.
Though the bill doesn’t specifically mention it, Newton was clear during Friday’s session that the legislation targets Sharia law, a legal system based on the religious and moral tenants of Islam. Few Muslim countries apply the entire body of rules, instead choosing measures relevant to them. More than 60 countries use at least part of Sharia law in their governance.
Its improper use has “worked to deprive” U.S. citizens and immigrants of their constitutional rights, Newton said. There have been 27 reported cases around the country in which Sharia law has been used, he added.
More than 20 states have introduced legislation banning Sharia law or foreign law in state courts. Many bills – including North Carolina’s – would apply only to cases in which the application of foreign law would violate a person’s constitutional rights.
Sen. Ellie Kinnaird of Chapel Hill, a Democrat, said she thinks the bill’s sponsors don’t truly mean to inform judges that foreign law is unacceptable, but rather the people of North Carolina. “I think the audience is really wider,” Kinnaird said.
The N.C. Bar Association opposed the bill in its former incarnation, House Bill 695. The American Bar Association said in a resolution that the passage of such bills will have a “widespread negative impact on business, adversely affecting … economic development in the states in which such a law is passed and in U.S. foreign commerce generally.”
The danger doesn’t come from the legislation’s exact wording, said Omid Safi, a professor of religious studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. He contends this wave of anti-foreign-law legislation comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of Sharia law and a “bigoted” perception of Muslims.
“We would be delighted to have a conversation about what Sharia law actually is and what it is not,” he said. “It would be important, if we’re passing legislation on the topic, for (lawmakers who support the bill) to actually benefit from the expertise of people who might actually know something about the subject.”
The bill wouldn’t affect only Sharia law. Jewish organizations have spoken out against anti-foreign-law legislation across the United States because the measures could negate the common Jewish practice of resolving disputes according to their religious laws, Halacha.