Judge blocks Oklahoma law banning Islamic law in state courts

Oklahoma voters have passed a constitutional amendment barring the state’s judges from considering Islamic law when trying cases.

Not so fast, a federal judge said last week, throwing a restraining order at the new law and scheduling a hearing for later this week. At issue is whether the amendment violates the freedom of religion clause of the U.S. Constitution by singling out Islamic Law rather than simply barring judges from considering any religious laws in their handling of cases.

The New York Times Sunday published an in-depth article on the case and a Forbes columnist followed suit today.

Of course, as is the way of all such ballot initiatives, this one was designed to do more than tell judges what to do. In a year that saw Republicans gain ground almost everywhere, this measure seems to have been designed at least in part to separate the true-blue conservatives from the pretenders. In fact, several Democrats lost close races in Oklahoma at least partly because of their opposition to the measure, which was passed with 70 percent support.

From The New York Times:

Cory Williams, a Democratic state representative from Stillwater, expected his opponent in the recent election to label him a free-spending liberal allied with President Obama.

He did not foresee that he would be accused of trying to subject Oklahomans to Islamic law.

Mr. Williams was one of 10 Democrats who voted against putting a state constitutional amendment on the ballot that would forbid state judges from considering international or Islamic law in deciding cases. He considered the idea unnecessary, since the First Amendment already bans state-imposed religion.

His Republican challenger sent out mailers showing him next to a shadowy figure in an Arab headdress. On the other side, the flier said Mr. Williams wanted to allow “Islamic ‘Shariah’ law to be used by Oklahoma courts” and suggested that he was part of “an international movement, supported by militant Muslims and liberals,” to establish Islamic law throughout the world.

“At the end of the day, it was just fearmongering,” Mr. Williams said.

Williams won his race, but others were not so fortunate.

“It was inflammatory, and it got people to turn out,” said State Representative Wallace Collins, a Democrat from Norman who lost a close race. “It worked for them.”

The day after the election, Muneer Awad, executive director of the local Council on American-Islamic Relations, filed a lawsuit. Mr. Awad argued that the amendment violated the freedom of religion clause of the United States Constitution, because it singled out Shariah law and Islam for special treatment rather than banning consideration of all religious codes. That amounts to state disapproval of Islam, he argued.

Last Monday, Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange of Federal District Court agreed that Mr. Awad’s complaint had merit, finding that the amendment’s “primary purpose inhibits religion.” She temporarily halted the certification of the election results and scheduled a hearing for next week.

Outside the courthouse, Mr. Duncan said the restraining order “thwarts the will of the people.” He said the amendment was never intended as an attack on Muslims, but as an effort to prevent what he called “activist judges” from using Islamic law in deciding cases.

Law professors have begun to raise questions about the unintended consequences of the amendment. Because it also “forbids courts from using or considering international law,” it could complicate contractual arrangements between Oklahoma companies and those with headquarters abroad. The amendment might also prevent judges from referring to the Ten Commandments or exploring English common law in their decisions.

“You throw a series of ambiguous ill-conceived words into the State Constitution and you don’t know what will happen,” said Harry F. Tepker Jr., a law professor at the University of Oklahoma. “It’s a mess.”

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About the Author

Scot Kersgaard

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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