Monday, 29 November 2010

Oklahoma and Sharia Law Ban

Say what you like about America but its political system does allow the public to get involved in debate and decision making in a way that is very difficult this side of the Atlantic. One of the latest examples of this was the decision by citizens of Oklahoma to amend their State Constitution so as to ban Sharia law.

The legal background to the wording of the amendment makes interesting reading because Oklahoma law requires that any proposed amendment to the State Constitution needs to be accompanied by an explanation of the amendment and its purpose. The Ballot as put to the Voters of Oklahoma read as follows.

This measure amends the State Constitution. It changes a section that deals with the courts of this state. It would amend Article 7, Section 1. It makes courts rely on federal and state law when deciding cases. It forbids courts from considering or using international law. It forbids courts from considering or using Sharia Law.

International law is also known as the law of nations. It deals with the conduct of international organizations and independent nations, such as countries, states and tribes. It deals with their relationship with each other. It also deals with some of their relationships with persons. The law of nations is formed by the general assent of civilized nations. Sources of international law also include international agreements, as well as treaties. Sharia Law is Islamic law. It is based on two principal sources, the Koran and the teaching of Mohammed.

"C. The Courts provided for in subsection A of this section, when exercising their judicial authority, shall uphold and adhere to the law as provided in the United States Constitution, the Oklahoma Constitution, the United States Code, federal regulations promulgated pursuant thereto, established common law, the Oklahoma Statutes and rules promulgated pursuant thereto, and if necessary the law of another state of the United States provided the law of the other state does not include Sharia Law, in making judicial decisions. The courts shall not look to the legal precepts of other nations or cultures. Specifically, the courts shall not consider international law or Sharia Law. The provisions of this subsection shall apply to all cases before the respective courts including, but not limited to, cases of first impression. "

After being passed the Amendment was immediately the subject of a legal case by the Council on American Islamic Relations and that legal case will no doubt drag on for several years. In the meantime the Constitutional Amendment has been put on hold and does not form part of the Oklahoma Constitution.

Most of the arguments against the Oklahoma Amendment have concentrated on the line that it is a breach of the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution which says
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

There is a similar provision in Article 1.2 of the Oklahoma Constitution which says
§ 2. Religious liberty - Polygamous or plural marriages.
Perfect toleration of religious sentiment shall be secured, and no inhabitant of the State shall ever be molested in person or property on account of his or her mode of religious worship; and no religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights. Polygamous or plural marriages are forever prohibited.

The question for the Courts will undoubtedly be whether the proposed amendment amounts to a defacto interference with the "free exercise of religion" and/or "a religious test for the exercise of civil or political rights". It seems to me that the amendment as passed clearly does that in so far as it prevents the use of Sharia law even with regard to purely internal regulation of Muslim organisations or the personal use of Sharia in Arbitration. However I suspect that the amendment can be struck down on grounds that do not require the Courts to look to closely at the religious aspects of Sharia. The word in the amendment
provided the law of the other state does not include Sharia Law, in making judicial decisions. can be argued to be in breach of Article IV.1 of the US Constitution which requires that "full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the ... judicial proceedings of every other state" ie if another State recognises Sharia in part of its law Oklahoma has no right to disagree. Furthermore the refusal to recognise International law goes against several references in the US Constitution to the "law of nations" as being recognised by the Constitution.

It will be interesting to see how the case develops but legally speaking I do not give much credence to the survival of the amendment as passed.

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