A new chapter in the age-old debate about the role of religion in government is playing out in Oklahoma this month as a federal judge considers the constitutionality of a ballot initiative that forbids state courts from considering Islamic Shariah law in their decisions.
Although sponsors of the measure produced no evidence that Shariah law -- the body of law based on the Koran and the religion of Islam -- is actually being used in the courts, voters approved the measure by a 70 percent margin Nov. 2.
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?"
Opponents of the ban 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.
Muneer Awad, Oklahoma executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, filed suit in federal court two days after the election. Awad claimed the measure violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which forbids the government from giving preference to one religion over another.
He says that 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."
In an initial hearing, U.S. District Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange granted Awad's request for a temporary restraining order, blocking the measure from taking effect and setting a hearing for Nov. 22. "The Court finds plaintiff has shown a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of his claim asserting a violation of the Establishment Clause," she wrote.
Still, some experts dismiss the controversy, saying that it represents symbolic politics only, fueled by the after effects of 9/11, and that it is a law that 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.
"Worrisome cases are starting to emerge in the United States that show Shariah is coming here," he wrote.
"We should have a federal law that says under no circumstance, in any jurisdiction in the United States, will Shariah be used in any court to apply to any judgment," Gingrich said in a September speech.