FOR GOD’S SAKE | Having handily passed through the Florida House, and expecting easy passage through the state Senate, the “Application of Foreign Law in Certain Cases” bill, could soon be the law in Florida. What is the bill all about? Depends upon whom you ask.
Its sponsors claim it’s nothing more than an attempt to maintain maximal and fully equal legal protection for all people living in Florida. Its detractors see it as yet another attempt to preempt reliance on any legal system or body, Islamic or otherwise, which holds itself to any standards other than the Florida and United States constitutions.
Most disturbingly, as I see it, the law would strip people of their constitutional rights to voluntarily participate in communities and/or contracts which should not be governed by secular law. And the key word here is voluntarily.
That Florida lawmakers want to see the protections afforded by state and federal law remain the bedrock of all legal proceedings conducted in their state is not such a terrible thing. And although it will offend some people who are immediately offended by any legislation directed against reliance on Sharia or other religious systems being used in secular courts, it merits recognizing the fairness of questioning why those systems, especially when they fail to meet the measure of our own legal norms, should be relied upon, or why decisions reached in a religious or foreign institutions should be enforced.
Truth be told, not all legal systems are equal – at least not from our perspective as Americans. We need not apologize for our commitment to the constitutional protections which we hold so dear and our belief that it makes for a superior legal system. But it’s also clear that our democratic tradition also recognizes the rights of individuals to make decisions for themselves; decisions through which they may limit the application of those rights in private matters such as marriage and divorce.
Ultimately, the issue here is the extent to which we are willing to protect people’s freedom of individual expression and conscience. To what extent do we appreciate that people have a right to give up some choices and protections? However much that might disturb some of us, protecting that right is what makes our Constitution so great.
It would be nothing short of tragic to implement a law which could undermine people’s right to make free and voluntary decisions regarding their own lives simply because some other people don’t like the codes upon which they base their decision. How painfully ironic it would be to pass into law, a measure that could undermine constitutional rights in the name of protecting them! It’s like something out of Orwell’s 1984.
It’s also worth recognizing that this story got more attention when Jewish groups began to oppose the proposed law, almost certainly having been motivated by the fact that if passed, the law could severely limit, or even nullify, the power of Jewish courts to issue religious divorces. Makes me wonder why doing the same thing to Muslims did not merit attention.
I fear that it points to ongoing challenges faced by American Muslims, and the deep suspicion with which their religion is viewed by many other Americans. Based on how this story entered the news cycle, it seems that were people convinced that this legislation would “only” curtail any reliance on Muslim law, they really would not care. But, if it impinges on the religious laws of other people – read “good people with good religions” – only then would it be really problematic.
This law, however well-intentioned it might be, is simply not a good idea – at least it’s not until there is a great deal more public conversation about what really motivates those who support it, and also the extent to which its passage might actually undermine the very freedoms and protections which it claims to preserve.