OKLAHOMA CITY - Lawmakers in the central state of Oklahoma are considering banning judges from basing any rulings on foreign laws, including Islamic Sharia law.
A Senate panel on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved the bill, which has broad support in the Republican-controlled Legislature. The bill would specifically make void and unenforceable any court, arbitration or administrative agency decision that doesn't grant the parties affected by the ruling "the same fundamental liberties, rights and privileges granted under the U.S. and Oklahoma constitutions."
"This is a way to protect American citizens ... where somebody may try to use any kind of foreign law or religious law to affect the outcome of a trial," said Republican Sen. Ralph Shortey, who sponsored the bill. Shortey described it as "American Law for American Courts."
A handful of other states have laws aimed at keeping courts from basing decision on foreign legal codes, including Islamic law. Oklahoma voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2010 that would have specifically prohibited courts from considering Sharia law, but a federal judge blocked its implementation after a Muslim community leader alleged it discriminates against his religion.
Critics call the "American Law for American Courts" movement a bigoted 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.
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 in political campaigns, in conservative tea party rallies and on right-wing cable news.
One of the most persistent voices on the issue is David Yerushalmi, a Brooklyn, New York 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 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.
In Oklahoma, Shortey said he didn't know of an instance in the state where a judge has relied on foreign laws, but he said there have been cases in other states.
That prompted state Republican Sen. Brian Crain to describe the measure as a "solution that's looking for a problem." Crain was the only member of the Senate committee to vote against the bill.
The panel approved the bill 8-1. It now heads to the full Senate for a vote. A similar measure has been introduced in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
The executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said Oklahoma courts already are required to enforce state and federal laws when they conflict with foreign law that violates public policy.
"This bill is entirely unnecessary and creates significant uncertainty for Oklahomans married abroad as well as those Oklahomans who have adopted a child from another country or are seeking to do so," Executive Director Ryan Kiesel said in a statement. "These Oklahoma families don't deserve to have this type of doubt cast over them.
"It also creates an atmosphere of uncertainty for foreign businesses seeking to do business with Oklahoma businesses."
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