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Legislature looks at "foreign laws" in Florida courts

By Tom Flanigan

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-964874.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – This year, several states have considered legislation that would ban courts and judges from recognizing any laws that weren't passed in the United States. Florida is one of those states and bill advocates say it's needed to make sure the federal and state constitutions are followed. But, as Tom Flanigan reports, opponents say it's just an attempt to make political hay out of anti-Muslim sentiment.

The Florida legislation was proposed this month in the Senate Judiciary Committee by Umatilla Republican Alan Hays.

"In the courtrooms of the state of Florida, the only laws that may be applied are those of the State of Florida and the United States. Period."
The main reason for the legislation, according to Senator Hays, to keep the state's legal decisions pure and free from alien influence.

"The founders of our nation believed that the United States of America and its individual states should never be subservient to any foreign power, country or legal system and that no foreign power, country or legal system, should be allowed to encroach upon our rights under the United States Constitution."

That had Dave Barkey with the Anti-Defamation League wondering if that applied to those in his faith who might seek legal remedies under the traditions of their faith.

"That under this law, an observant Jewish couple could never use the Beth Din system to arbitrate their marriage dispute and they would be forced to use a secular system or the secular courts in violation of their free exercise rights? This is unconstitutional, this is unnecessary; this is harmful to religious freedom."

Senator Hays was quick to point out that it was a situation regarding another faith tradition that had him concerned.

"In Tampa, there is a circuit court judge down there that said he's going to use ecclesiastical Islamic law in that court in a case there, but as far as I'm concerned, if it's a Florida court, no other laws should be adhered to."

Apparently the threat to America's legal system isn't only in Tampa. At least eight other states have at least considered similar legislation so far this year. In most cases, the bills to prevent Islamic law from worming its way into those states' courts haven't gotten too far in their respective legislatures. But it does seem that those who profess the Muslim faith, including Americans, are viewed as potential terrorists by some. Pamela Marsh is the U-S Attorney for the Northern District of Florida. She told a recent forum at the Florida State College of Law that's she's been meeting with members of the Islamic community in her region.

"They explained that after 911 there was so much public criticism of Islam and so much stereotyping and stigma that they kind of isolated themselves as a protective mechanism. Instead of struggling against the stereotypes and ignorance and false assumptions, they understandably wanted to limit their exposure to that."

Marsh's district also contains the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville. That's the church pastored by Terry Jones who burned a copy of the Quran last month. Nine people died in Afghanistan during the resulting protests. That may have been an isolated incident. But Parvez Ahmed, Fulbright Scholar and a professor of finance at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, says negative attitudes toward Muslims are surprisingly widespread.

"A recent survey by the Gallup Poll suggested that 53-percent of Americans believe or view Islam unfavorably with six-in-ten reporting that they know little or nothing about Islam. While other extremists are portrayed as being outside the mainstream, terrorists who happen to be Muslim are characterized as representatives of their religion."

And Ahmed worries that putting those attitudes into law, as the Hays bill would do, could make things far worse.

"The assumed link between religiosity and terrorism encourages intrusion in Muslim religious institutions, traditionally considered off-limits to government scrutiny. Such intrusions have alienated the very community that forms the first line of defense against terrorism. Can a community be simultaneously treated as a suspect and also be expected to function as a partner?"