In an effort to support state Sen. Alan Hays’ and Rep. Larry Metz’s “Application of Foreign Law” bill, conservative commentators have recently been claiming that a Florida judge has subjected one of the parties involved in a civil law suit against the Islamic Education Center of Tampa to Sharia, Islamic law. But legal experts say the judge’s ruling is hardly uncommon, and that laws of all faiths and nationalities are regularly discussed in American courts.
Richard Swier, at the right-wing blog Red County, wrote on March 19 that the Republican-sponsored Foreign Law bill is needed to “stop the spread of Sharia in Florida,” in part because a Tampa lawsuit ruling shows “how Sharia has already penetrated our legal system.”
The St. Petersburg Times reported this week that the suit in question “was filed by several men who say they were improperly ousted as trustees in 2002. The dispute may decide who controls $2.2 million the center received from the state after some of its land was used in a road project.”
Douglas Laycock, professor of law at the University of Virginia Law School, tells The Florida Independent that “these agreements arbitrated under other bodies of law are very common, and there is a large body of civil law about enforcing them and reviewing the arbitrators’ decision.”
“We have commercial arbitration agreements all the time,” Laycock says, “and the Jewish arbitration courts deal with both religious disputes and commercial disputes between Jewish merchants who have agreed to use the Jewish arbitration system instead of civil courts.”
Emphasizing how common such rulings are, Laycock says this case is no different than one in which Americans agree to arbitrate in London, or under German law. He says there is a case being arbitrated in Texas right now under Saudi law.
“This is no different,” Laycock says, “except that parts of the right wing are agitating and pandering about Muslims at the moment.”
He says that if the parties involved didn’t agree to the arbitration, then, he doesn’t “know how they got there.”
“It is almost unimaginable that a judge would order them to Muslim arbitration if they hadn’t agreed to it,” he says.
The Times reported that the judge would use Islamic law to decide only the legitimacy of the arbitration.
“You might find elements of Sharia, or Jewish law, or something like that in U.S. courts, consistent with the First Amendment and U.S. civil law, in very limited contexts like contracts and voluntary arbitration in which any party is free to pull out and go to civil court,” says Hussein Ibish, author and director of Ibishblog.
According to Ibish, if there is a contract and the terms are structured under a common understanding of religious law, it is necessary to examine what ecclesiastical law might say to determine whether the parties are living up to their commitments under the contract.
He says the Florida case involving the Islamic Education Center of Tampa looks like contract law enforcement, in which the terms of the contract are religious. To determine if the contract has been fulfilled or not, you need to examine the religious tenets of the contract.
“This is not about people holding people to religious legal standards arbitrarily,” Ibish says. “It’s about holding them to a voluntary agreement.”
He says it is unusual — and rightly so — for religious law to come into any non-arbitration legal case in the U.S.
When asked if the ruling means there is Sharia law in U.S. courts, Ibish says clearly not.
“What it means,” he says, “is that understandings rooted in Sharia law can be the basis of enforceable contracts between voluntary contractual parties under American contract law. There is nothing illegal about being a Muslim. Therefore, there is nothing illegal about having a contract based on Muslim understandings of consideration in an Islamic context.”
According to the Times, the attorney representing the mosque said the mosque believes wholeheartedly in the Quran and it follows Islamic law in connection with its spiritual endeavors, but with respect to secular endeavors, Florida law should apply in Florida courts.
But Ibish says a judge might rule that religious law must be examined, given the context of the original contract.
“It is not the importation of foreign law,” Ibish says. “It might be the creation of a contract in the U.S. under a set of minority cultural expectations, and that happens every day, all day, all over the country.”
He cites a Jewish marriage contract as an example: If a man in the course of a divorce feels his wife has not met the obligations of their marriage agreement, the court would examine the mutual expectations laid out in the contract.
Ibish says bills like Hays’ and Metz’s to ban judges from using Sharia is ridiculous, because the First Amendment clearly prohibits it.
“We cannot have any religious law,” Ibsih says. “This issue has been blown out of proportion and misrepresented by people who want to make people scared that Muslims in the U.S. are trying to force religious law down the throats of the Americans, and bring Islamic law into the U.S. … It is something American Muslims do no want to do and cannot do.”