Since 9-11 many Americans have reacted strongly against Muslims and Islamic laws. Some see the presence of Muslims as a threat to our nation. Others are more open but are still guided by a great deal of fear when it comes to Muslim practice. Many conservative commentators stir up a general, and often ill-defined, negative reaction to Islamic culture. The truth is that this is a culture they neither understand nor care to understand with any degree of empathy. Christians can, and should, do much better. If for no other reason we have clear statements from our Lord about loving our neighbors, even our enemies. Though this does not mean that we should be anything less than vigilant with regard to radical Islamic movements and people (for reasons of security) it also does not mean that we should oppose Islamic movements, people or their laws. It is this last idea (Muslim laws) that I write about today.
Make no mistake about this–there is a strong anti-Sharia movement in the United States. This movement had led to 22 state legislatures having either passed or considered bills to prohibit judges from considering Sharia law, or any foreign laws, in their decision making. But since 2011 numerous bills have either died or been withdrawn in states. This prompted Omar Sacirbey, of Religion News Service, to suggest that the anti-Sharia movement may have "lost its momentum." I hope so.
Take Oklahoma as one example. In 2011 voters passed an amendment to the state constitution that prohibited judges from considering foreign laws, including all religious laws, in their decision making. Two federal courts have since ruled that this amendment is unconstitutional, forcing lawmakers to revise the law. A new bill passed the state House in 2011 but the Senate Rules Committee did not hear the bill until recently and the Rules Committee voted it down 9-6. In Minnesota and New Jersey anti-Muslim bills were withdrawn after various expressions of protest. One Republican legislator in New Jersey, Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, said that her bill was never meant to be an anti-Sharia law bill, bur rather an "anti-foreign law" measure. She withdrew it on March 12 saying, "After sitting down with members of the Muslim community, and taking into consideration everything they'd been through in the last few weeks, I didn't want to create any more tension." It pays to sit down and listen.
In New Jersey Muslims rallied against a surveillance program specifically aimed at Muslim businesses and community centers in Newark. They also spoke out against actions of the NYPD. In both cases their voices were heard and steps were taken to correct abuses.
One online newsletter recently reported that similar bills have recently died in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi and New Mexico. A few could be revived next year but the trends are moving in the other direction for now. Only four states have actually passed such bills: Tennessee, Louisiana, Arizona and South Dakota. At this moment anti-foreign law bills are alive in 12 states altogether. So the movement is anything but dead.
A recent poll shows that the number of Americans who believe Muslims want to impose Sharia on all Americans is now only 14%, down from 30% in the same poll last September (Public Research Institute).
Why should anti-Sharia laws be opposed in America?
1. They are plainly discriminatory against Muslims. Our nation has rightly eschewed such forms of religious discrimination, especially over the last fifty years.
2. This movement, and the passage of anti-Sharia laws, could adversely affect other religious groups such as Jews and Catholics, both of whom have religious laws that have been used by judges for many years to decide family or property disputes.
3. These anti-Sharia laws discourage businesses by invalidating foreign laws altogether.
These bills target Muslim communities at a time of deep national tension about the proper role of Islam in America. Muslim laws are seen by some as a menace to American freedoms. Behind these responses you can often find a veiled expression of xenophobia as well as a bad legal precedent that violates the practice and religious beliefs of minorities. In the light of what I wrote yesterday about our courts I believe that it will only be time until the Supreme Court will hear a direct challenge to such a state law. I think it is likely that they would strike down such a law as a clear violation of the First Amendment rights of Muslims.
Opposing anti-Sharia laws is important to a healthy democracy and to the proper understanding of the role of church and state in America. Informed Christians should promote the defeat of this kind of legislation on the grounds of religious freedom, a freedom that if threatened in one area can be threatened in another at some future point. We need to remain vigilant about our religious rights. This includes the rights of our Muslim neighbors. At its core this is what makes America unique from France, Germany and most other nations in the West. We do not promote religion through the state nor do we use the state to hinder religious practice so long as the rights of others are not violated.