Earlier this month, before the furor over several proposed abortion bills threw Virginia into the national spotlight, another controversial bill began moving in the House of Delegates.
House Bill 825 proposes to ban the use of any legal code established outside the United States in U.S. courtrooms. While it is largely understood that the primary target of the legislation was sharia, or Islamic law, the expansive bill has drawn unexpected criticism from other groups that are concerned that, as written, it could easily be interpreted to ban the use of halacha, Jewish law, and other Catholic canon laws. Muslim advocates had already condemned the bill, as they’ve done with the dozens of state-level bills that have explicitly or implicitly targeted Islamic law. But Jewish groups were also speaking out, saying that the law could limit their ability to settle family matters like wills and divorces according to their religious guidelines. Catholic officials also voiced concerns that bills like these could prevent the Roman Catholic Church (based in Italy) from owning parish buildings and schools. Business leaders also added their voices to the clamor against the bill, citing concerns that it could hurt international business relations. Deciding to reevaluate their approach, the bill’s proponents sent the bill back to committee.
Virginia is just one of two dozen states with bans on foreign laws moving in their legislature. Last week, a similar bill made its way out of Florida’s House Judiciary Committee, amid protests from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Florida Bar’s Family Association, and the ACLU. A third measure preventing the use of foreign law in U.S. courtrooms headed toward a vote in the Georgia House of Representatives.
But as the debate in Virginia shows, the tide could be changing. Lawmakers have had to revamp their approach since an Appeals court struck down Oklahoma’s earlier version as discriminatory for specifically mentioning sharia law. In order to pass constitutional muster, the new bills are written with broad-strokes prohibitions, which have had the unintended effect of drawing other religious groups and business interests into the fray.
Public opinion is also shifting. While these legal challenges evolved, Americans’ concerns about the threat that sharia law’s threat to the American legal system have fluctuated considerably, largely in response to public events that captured national attention. A year ago, when Rep. Peter King’s congressional hearings on alleged radicalization among American Muslims, 23 percent of Americans agreed that American Muslims want to establish sharia as the law of the land in the U.S. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) disagreed, while 13 percent said they did not know. In September 2011, near the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and amidst debates around the Park 51 Community Center and Mosque in Manhattan, which opponents dubbed the “ground-zero mosque,” this number rose to nearly one-third (30 percent) of the general population. Over six-in-10 (61 percent) disagreed, while 8 percent said they did not know.
Over the few months, though, these issues have had a much lower media profile. And in the absence of prominent national stimuli, concerns about the threat of sharia have dropped by more than half since September. PRRI’s February 2012 Religion and Politics Tracking Survey showed only 14 percent of Americans agree that American Muslims want to establish sharia or Islamic law as law of the land. More than two-thirds (68 percent) disagree, and nearly 1-in-5 (17 percent) say they do not know.
These two trends suggest that, despite early momentum, the sponsors of anti-sharia legislation may have an uphill battle ahead of them. By widening the bills’ scope to include all laws that originate outside the U.S., sponsors of anti-sharia legislation are wading more deeply into the waters of religious liberty. Given that 88 percent of Americans agree that the U.S. was founded on the idea of religious freedom for everyone, including religious groups that are unpopular, fighting these legislative battles openly on religious liberty terrain may be difficult. It certainly won’t help that the current bills are being considered at a time when Americans’ concerns about the threat of sharia law have ebbed.