Religous Groups Question Motive Behind 'Foreign Law' Bill

Mar 21, 2014

There are around 167,000 self-identifying Muslims in the Sunshine State, a population that’s growing. Some of them crowded the courtyard between the new and historical capitol buildings Wednesday as the sounds of an unrelated event’s karaoke blared in the distance.

Bedier is a well-known Florida community organizer and founder of United Voices of America, a civic organization that encourages broader minority participation in politics. He’s also the founder of Florida Muslim Capitol Day. He created the Islamic-focused event to introduce younger Muslims to the American political process. It’s his sixth year planning the occasion and he’s spent half that time fighting a bill filed by State Senator Alan Hays (R-Umatilla). State Representative Neil Combee (R-Auburndale) is sponsoring the House version of that bill which seeks to prevent judges from enforcing prenuptial agreements and other marriage contracts if the agreement is based on a “foreign law, legal code, or system,” including a religious one.

“The Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution – these rights translate into our court systems and are the measuring sticks used when settling disputes, ensuring due process and the right to a fair trial This bill merely puts in statute that the U.S. and Florida Constitutions are the measuring sticks when settling disputes and keeps foreign laws, that may not recognize these concepts, from being utilized in our court system,” Combee explained before the House Civil Justice Subcommittee Tuesday.

In other words, the U.S. and Florida Constitutions supersede any marital contracts a couple may have committed to prior to immigrating to Florida. But, Ahmed Bedier says the law is based on prejudices.

“Their message is: if you’re in America, you need to follow American law,” Bedier said Wednesday. “But, if you dig deeper in the language and the definitions, it really focuses down to family law courts and it focuses on divorce, marriage, inheritance and child custody.”

Bedier thinks the legislation is targeted at the Muslim community and is a part of a personal vendetta by Hays, who in the past has critical of Sharia law, a set of Muslim religious commandments. And Bedier points out Florida isn’t alone in debating Sharia and other religious law bans.

“This bill is what’s called a copycat legislation. Which means, the exact same bill has been introduced in dozens of other states by this organization called ALEC, which a lot of Republicans participate in, they get copycat legislation and then they go to their own states and introduce it,” Bedier explains.

That includes a 2010 voter referendum in Oklahoma that specifically banned Sharia law. It overwhelmingly passed but was overturned by a federal judge. Hays’ bill isn’t as specific. It doesn’t actually mention Sharia law and allows either party in a contract to wave their constitutional rights in favor of their agreement. Tallahassee Constitutional Lawyer Daniel Woodring says that’s pursuant to a Florida Supreme Court opinion.

“The Florida Supreme Court has actually said that parties can contract away, under some circumstances, their constitutional rights. Such as, there was a right that limited the recovery of fees that was put in the constitution in a medical malpractice case and the court said ‘well, even though that’s a right, the parties can contract away that limitation.’”

Woodring says the court’s ability to enforce blatantly unconstitutional contracts or agreements is already an established legal precedent. He says codifying that case law isn’t necessarily needed. But he says he isn’t sure whether either side of the debate has an iron-clad case.

Combee’s house bill passed its first committee and Hays’ bill is scheduled for its first hearing in the next few days.