Should Islamic Laws Be Allowed in US Courts?
Sharia Law’s Impact on the United States
A few years ago, voters were outraged when they heard that a judge had denied a woman a protective order after her husband had raped her because the husband was a Muslim who claimed that marital rape was legal under Islamic, or Sharia law. The decision was overturned on appeal, but anti-Sharia laws have popped up over the country since that case.
Conflicts between Sharia law and American law largely arise in family law, typically when couples from countries that recognize Sharia law migrant to the United States. These couples file for divorce and will argue over domestic violence and/or property distribution. One of the spouses, usually the husband, will use belief in Islam as a justification for a legal conclusion that favors the spouse.
Alternatively, that same spouse, usually the husband, will argue that the prenuptial agreement signed in the original country was recognized under Sharia law, and the agreement should thus be recognized in the United States.
Why We Should Discuss This Issue
Although conflicts between Sharia law and American law have existed since the 1970s, if not earlier, the idea of American courts applying Sharia law didn’t become explosive until the September 11 attacks. Seven states, Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Tennessee, have enacted anti-Sharia laws. Alabama will vote on the issue this November.
Anti-Sharia laws have not gone unopposed. Oklahoma’s constitution amendment banning Sharia law was ruled unconstitutional because it was considered discriminatory. Missouri’s anti-Sharia bill was vetoed by Missouri’s governor because it would make international adoptions too difficult.
Many legal experts have dismissed the efforts to ban Sharia law as solutions in search of a problem. Ironically, they are making the same mistake as the hotheads who enact these anti-Sharia laws: they are dismissing the issue without giving the matter much thought. The issues with Sharia law are small, but we should examine rather than trivialize such cases. My cursory research into Sharia law in the United States has drawn me to these observations:
- Family cases involving Sharia law are limited to the facts. It would be difficult for Sharia law to “creep” into American case law because most of the cases involving Sharia law are distinguishable based on facts which don’t often arise outside of the Islamic community. In cases where American judges acted consistently with Sharia law, the parties were citizens from Pakistan, India, Israel, or other countries which use Sharia law. Our judges aren’t allowing Sharia law to supersede American law. Instead, our judges are recognizing the legitimacy of courts outside of the United States when the nationals of those other countries are involved.
- Cases involving Sharia law would reach the same outcome even if Islam wasn’t involved. In some cases, there is no conflict between Sharia law and our law. For instance, Sharia law demands that Islamic courts apply a “child’s best interest” standard when deciding child custody. Coincidentally, our legal system uses the same standard. Obviously, cultures will differ on what exactly is in a child’s best interests. Islamic courts believe that children who grow up in an Islamic society are better off than children who do not. That belief seems wrong, but let’s not forget that our own courts used to overvalue Christianity when they awarded the custody of Native American children to white parents. In other cases, our judges have decided to stay out of the case. For example, our judges cannot decide employment disputes between Imams and mosques. That is an internal religious dispute and our federal constitution forbids courts from meddling with the free exercise of religion. This would be true even if the conflict involved a minister and a church, so in these few cases there would be no difference in the outcome.
The Threat Which Is Not Threatening
Currently, these anti-Sharia laws are naïve experiments. Laws which specifically target Sharia specifically targets Muslims and are thus unconstitutional. Some states tried to “fix” that problem by making them broad. Instead of banning Sharia law, states like Oklahoma are banning “foreign law.” Alabama has taken this a step further and is prohibiting the application of laws which conflict with Alabama’s own policies.
Making the ant-Sharia laws broader only creates more problems. Banning foreign laws makes it next to impossible to attract international contracts since companies in other countries won’t do business if they don’t think their contracts will be honored. Alabama’s proposed law is even more extreme. I can’t see states like Alabama ignoring the United States Supreme Court merely because the Supreme Court decides cases contrary to Alabama law.
So if states are worried that their courts will decide cases which legitimize wife beating or marital rape based on Islam, what can these states do? Instead of having states enact unconstitutional and overbroad anti-Sharia laws, Congress should strengthen our refugee laws. Most of the women being victimized by Sharia law came to the United States to escape unjust marital arrangements and abusive husbands. If we make it easier for women from Islamic countries to obtain political refugee status, we would do more good than the symbolic, but empty, anti-Sharia laws that states are currently trying to enact.