South Carolina Bill Would Nullify Islamic Law in State Courts

February 4, 2011 - 7:37 PM

Columbia, S.C. (AP) - A South Carolina proposal would prevent the state's courts from enforcing foreign law, including Islamic Sharia law, though Muslim advocates say it could essentially ban religion from mundane matters such as weddings and even burials.

The bill makes no reference to a specific religion or country, though its sponsors acknowledge they worry about the ultraconservative tenets of Sharia law, or Islamic religious law. At least 13 states have introduced similar measures this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Sen. Mike Fair, a Greenville Republican who is the bill's main sponsor, said there was a need to clarify that cultural customs or foreign laws don't trump U.S. laws. He pointed to a 1993 divorce case in Virginia, in which a court deemed a marriage legal based on Islamic tradition. That decision was overturned.

"What we're trying to do is, with certainty, restate the obvious, particularly for our newcomers, that culture from a foreign country or religion does not dictate our law," Fair said.

Muslim advocates, however, fear the law could essentially ban mundane religious practices in legal documents like wills, which may distribute property based on Islamic traditions.

South Carolina, a deeply conservative state, was among six states that introduced similar legislation last year. However, South Carolina's proposal, which then referenced Sharia law, went nowhere. A seventh, Tennessee, passed a law prohibiting foreign law in contracts. Voters in Oklahoma approved an amendment to their state constitution specifically barring Sharia law, though a federal judge has blocked the state from implementing it. Louisiana lawmakers passed a more vague law last year.

"The backers of these discriminatory proposals realize if they put specific references to Sharia or Muslims, it won't pass constitutional muster," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based Muslim rights advocacy group.

The South Carolina House sponsor, Rep. Wendy Nanney, R-Greenville, insisted her bill was about international child custody cases and had little to do with Sharia law. But Senate sponsors said they worry about how strict religious laws might be applied to domestic violence and child custody cases.

Hooper dismissed the effort as anti-Muslim political pandering and said it was ridiculous to think a judge would side with someone who misconstrued Islamic principles.

"No judge is going to say, well, this happens in Uzbekistan," he said. "It's just not going to happen."

Gadeir Abbas, a Council attorney in the Oklahoma case, said the law could bar religious traditions in mundane matters, such as weddings and burials. For instance, a will may dictate that a deceased person be buried with her head pointing to Mecca. That could be considered foreign law and unenforceable.

"All the Muslim community wants to do is have the right to do what other religious communities do all the time, enact their beliefs lawfully," he said.

Fair, however, said the proposal only applies to foreign or religious laws that conflict with the Constitution.

The issue has come up in South Carolina before.

In 1979, an inmate appealed his contempt of court sentence, saying he shouldn't have to testify against a fellow Muslim because it would contradict Islam - and therefore his First Amendment rights. The trial court and state Supreme Court disagreed.

In 2004, a court hearing a divorce case appeal put travel restrictions on a native of Iran who became a U.S. citizen. The court recognized that if the man took his children to Iran, his wife would have little recourse under that country's laws.