Federal Judge Bars Oklahoma Ballot Initiative on Sharia Law

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A federal judge in Oklahoma on Monday barred the implementation of a ballot initiative, passed by 70 percent of voters in Oklahoma that would have forbidden state courts from considering Sharia Law in their decisions.

"This order addresses issues that go to the very foundation of our country, our Constitution, and particularly, the Bill of Rights." Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange wrote. "Throughout the course of our country's history, the will of the 'majority' has on occasion conflicted with the constitutional rights of individuals" she said.

The controversial initiative was passed even though its supporters acknowledged they had no evidence that the state's courts were considering Sharia -- the body of law based on Islam and the Koran -- in their decisions.

The initiative was immediately challenged by Muneer Awad, Oklahoma executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who filed suit claiming the measure violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution which forbids the government from giving preference to one religion over another.

Opponents of the initiative say it is an unconstitutional scare tactic aimed at discriminating against Muslims. They say it will have a broad impact in the areas of family law that come before the courts and could prove to have national implications.

"The Court finds that plaintiff has shown that he will suffer an injury in fact, specifically, an invasion of his First Amendment rights which is concrete, particularized and imminent." Judge Miles-LaGrange wrote in granting Awad's request for a preliminary injunction. "The actual language of the amendment reasonably ... may be viewed as specifically singling out Sharia Law, conveying a message of disapproval of plaintiff's faith."

State Senator Rex Conrad, who penned the legislation, told the Los Angeles Times, "Oklahoma does not have that problem yet ... but why wait until it's in the courts?"

Awad claims the sponsors have tried to stigmatize and segregate his faith as something to be feared, while Shariah can play an important role in the areas of marriage and probate law.

"My will asks the judge to consider an aspect of Shariah regarding charitable giving upon death," he said. "This amendment means my will is invalid because it mentions Shariah."

Awad says that religious arbitration -- used by various faiths -- is "nothing new."

"There are Jewish courts dealing with issues of family law and domestic issues that can be resolved in Jewish court," he said. "Those people can ask a judge in a state court to enforce such arbitration. But if judges are forbidden from considering Shariah, then Muslims are unable to present any document of any legal significance that involves aspect of their religion."

Nothing More Than Symbolism?

Still, some experts dismiss the controversy, saying that it represents symbolic politics only, fueled by the after-effects of 9/11, and the initiative has no impact.

Other scholars believe the issue could be a starting point for a new direction in the debate on religion in the courts. In past decades, the debate might have focused on Catholics or Jehovah's Witnesses and now it centers on an emerging fear, from some groups, of the role of Islam.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich has an article up on his website referring to "the problem of creeping Shariah."

"Worrisome cases are starting to emerge in the United States that show Shariah is coming here," he wrote.

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