Anti-Sharia bill withdrawn by New Jersey lawmaker

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By: Dr. Aref Assaf
The nationwide march to pass anti-Sharia legislation was brought to a halt in New Jersey. While the Governor of South Dakota signed yesterday a bill that violates the religious rights of American Muslim citizens, I report to you the good news about a courageous New Jersey lawmaker who decided to withdraw a similar bill from further consideration by the New Jersey Legislature. In the climate of rising Islamophobia and NYPD spying, the decision to withdraw the bill is a significant, albeit, symbolic, reversal of ‘legal’ discrimination against Muslim citizens. Islamophobes must be in mourning.

In a recent press release, we joined leaders of the New Jersey Muslim community who welcomed the decision by Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi to withdraw her bill, A-919, targeting ‘foreign laws’ from further consideration by the New Jersey Legislature. “Foreign law’ is the latest camouflage term used by proponents of the anti-Sharia legislation. Assemblywoman, Holly Schepisi, who represents the 39th legislative District in Bergen and Passaic County, introduced in late 2011 a legislation bearing Bill number A 919 and its synopsis “Prohibits application of foreign laws when application violates constitutional rights.” Assemblywoman Charlotte Vandervalk originally introduced the bill in 2010. Research has shown that shown these bills are frivolous and unnecessary. Moreover, when tested in court, they were found to infringe upon the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

Assemblywoman Schepisi told the Record on March 12, 2012,“In the climate of what has been transpiring in the Muslim community in New Jersey, they were concerned it would further, in their view, portray Muslims in a negative light. After sitting and listening to their concerns, I agreed to withdraw it.” Such a welcome sensitivity is a rarely exhibited sentiment by many in government. I know that the residents of district 39 will want to acknowledge her decision in a most celebratory fashion.

It is significant that the New Jersey bill was withdrawn without much fanfare and public exposure. This is a wise decision by the esteemed Assemblywoman. Of course, we want our Constitution to be the supreme law of the land. The application of certain Islamic legal codes is only invoked when Muslims willingly enter into an agreement that warrants the consideration of Muslim regulations and so long such consideration does not violate the intent or the spirit of the US Constitution. New Jersey needs not to follow other states that have either passed or attempted to pass similar legislation whose principal objective was to attack the faith of millions of American Muslims.

All of this anti-Sharia activity has emerged despite the complete absence of evidence of the unconstitutional application of a foreign or religious law in our courts. In fact, even The Center for Security Policy, led by Islamophobe Frank Gaffney, a known anti-Muslim group, admits in a 177-page report to only fifty cases in twenty-three states where Sharia was part of the court’s considerations. And in all these cases, the court was deciding between willing American Muslim parties. This reality does not dissuade Muslim haters and their rhetoric sadly has seeped into our public discourse and even spilled over into our political life where presidential candidates have championed the cause of anti-Sharia for their political gains.

Nadia Kahf, president of the New Jersey Chapter of Council on American Islamic Relations, stated that “Rather than strengthen the Constitution, these bills, undoubtedly, violate religious freedom, and severely weaken the independence of our courts. Laws like the now defeated Oklahoma amendment myopically leave out the fact that there are occasions — such as in the execution of a will, or an unresolved disagreement over religious property — that leave civil courts no option but to consider the relevant religious law of the parties.”

Anti-Muslim pundits have thus far succeeded in pressuring politicians in over 22 States to introduce legislations, in varying forms, to ban the use of Muslim Sharia law. Assemblywoman Schepisi’s decision has saved New Jersey from becoming the latest victim of this massive campaign to attack the religious rights of American citizens. While the target is clearly Islamic Sharia, if passed, it would not have only impacted American Muslims. Observant Jews and Christians would also be severely impacted. As Abe Foxman of the Jewish Anti Defamation League opined recently, “these legislative efforts are the proverbial solution in search of a problem. The separation of church and state embodied in U.S. and state constitutions prohibits our courts from applying or considering religious law in any way that would constitute government advancement of or entanglement with religious law.”

A reading of the bill confirms our suspicion that is the exact copy of similar legislations, which were introduced in other states. The explanation is easily evident: all these bills have one common thread: they originate with white supremacist David Yerushalmi, an Arizona-based lawyer and founder of SANE (Society for Americans for National Excellence) who has previously called for a “war against Islam.” But it is not just Muslims who Yerushalmi is after. He has also criticized the universal suffrage movement, at one point saying, “There’s a reason the founding fathers did not give women of black slaves the right to vote.” Tim Murphy at Mother Jones has an excellent piece on Yerushalmi’s extremism, which is sadly being espoused by perhaps well-meaning politicians.

The New Jersey legislation, like the other templates used elsewhere, contains prohibitions on “international law” and “foreign law,” baselessly conflating foreign law with Sharia. This is now the preferred way to avoid being called anti-Muslim. More importantly, the substitution of “international law” is an attempt to avoid facing the fate of a similar bill in Oklahoma that was deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge. Their target nonetheless is Islamic Sharia.

Engy Abdelkader, a New Jersey lawyer stated in a recent email that, ‘Once proposed bills like these become law, they provide judges an opportunity to single out Sharia. In the meantime, they also have social and political implications by sending a nefarious message about American Muslims to the larger community.” Indeed, the unprecedented rash to introduce and pass these bills impregnates the national discourse that American Muslims and their Muslim faith are threats to America’s values and laws. The pundits’ arguments are often rooted in the notion that allowing Sharia to ‘creep’ into American laws and courts poses existential threats to American democracy. Advocates of these bills, who as of this day have introduced similar bills in over thirty states desire to benefit from the rising tide of bias against fellow American Muslim citizens.

Most constitutional experts assert that our existing legal system contains enough latitude and safeguards to ascertain when courts may properly reference religious law, and when doing so would not cross the line. No foreign or religious law must ever supersede American law. And the often-mentioned New Jersey case where a judge sided with a wife beater only to be promptly rejected by a higher court provides ample evidence that our courts need no new laws. This is not unique to the application of Sharia law. Banning the consideration of a particular faith’s laws entirely is not only discriminatory but also infringed upon the free exercise clause. The doomed New Jersey bill like others before it is beset by serious constitutional defects when it comes to the applicability of ‘international’ law. We all know that the US Constitution mandates federal and states authorities to honor signed foreign treaties or agreements as US law. Otherwise, the US could not possibly enter into any agreement on commerce, military, or other matters with any foreign country. Corporations likewise, could not conduct treaties and business dealings with foreign countries. Even the simple act of sending a letter, adopting a child, going on a cruise vacation, or receiving a phone call from other countries would not be possible. Recognizing international law is integral to our daily lives and to the continued prosperity and safety of our nation. Without reciprocity, foreign countries would not be obligated to honor their commitments to our nation, our citizens or our businesses

Laws are enacted to ensure the rights of citizens are preserved not curtailed. We hope New Jersey will remain immune to the anti-Sharia campaign. New Jersey and indeed the United States will be better off. Hats off to Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi.

Dr. Aref Assaf, President American Arab Forum, www.aafusa.org

Related: the American Bar Association adopted a resolution in 2011 summer opposing the anti-Sharia legislative movement in form and substance. That resolution and related analytical report can be found here and is http://gaveltogavel.us/site/2011/08/08/bans-on-court-use-of-shariainternational-law-aba-house-of-delegates-opposes-blanket-prohibitions-state-legislatures-out-of-session/