House bill: ‘In SC court, use S.C. law’

Would proposal ‘simplify’ justice or target Muslims?

gnsmith@thestate.com February 14, 2012 

  • What is Sharia law? Sharia law refers to a wide-ranging group of Islamic customs and religious beliefs. In some Middle Eastern countries, the guidelines are enforced by law. Sharia gives followers of Islam guidance on everything from diet to politics to financial matters to marriage. For example, it prohibits eating pork and drinking alcohol. However, many Muslims disagree on the interpretation of Sharia. S.C. ban A House bill, to be considered by a subcommittee Feb. 23, would prohibit any Palmetto State court or “other enforcement authority” from enforcing any foreign law. The proposal does not specifically name Sharia or any other foreign legal code. Twenty other states are considering similar measures. Three states, Tennessee, Louisiana and Arizona, already have added the laws to the books. Oklahoma put the ban in its state Constitution in 2010, a move now being challenged in federal court.

A long list of S.C. lawmakers plan to send a message to Palmetto State courts: Don’t apply foreign laws here.

A proposed law, which a House panel will consider later this month, is part of a growing movement in legislatures around the country.

Twenty other states are considering similar measures to ban judges from applying the laws of others nations, particularly in custody and marriage cases. Three states — Tennessee, Louisiana and Arizona — already have added the laws to their books. Oklahoma put it in its state Constitution in 2010, a move now being challenged in federal court.

Proponents say the S.C. measure will ensure only U.S. and S.C. laws are applied in Palmetto State courtrooms, and foreign laws do not trump constitutional rights guaranteed to Americans.

Opponents say the proposal addresses a nonexistent issue and, while not specifically naming Islamic Sharia law, smacks of anti-Islamic sentiment. They say such bills target the practice of Sharia, a wide-ranging group of Islamic religious codes and customs that, in some countries, are enforced as law.

While Sharia law provides followers of Islam guidelines on everything from crime to politics to hygiene and food, many Muslims also disagree on its interpretation.

State Rep. Wendy Nanney, R-Greenville, the bill’s sponsor, said she introduced the proposal after speaking with several family court judges around the state about problems with child-custody cases.

“I asked them if they had issues with custody cases decided outside of the country. They all said ‘Yes,’ ” Nanney said, adding one judge told her of a custody case brought before him that originally had been handled in Venezuela. The judge, who Nanney declined to name, said he struggled to find common ground between S.C. and Venezuelan laws, and how to apply them.

“It would simplify things to say, ‘We’re in a South Carolina court, and let’s use South Carolina law.’ It’s meant to help our judges not to be pushed and pressured and prodded to enforce other countries’ laws,” Nanney said.

Nanney said her bill does not target Sharia law or any other specific foreign code or law. Her proposal has 27 House co-sponsors, including House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, and 26 other Republicans, who control the General Assembly.

A similar bill was introduced in the Senate last year by another Greenville Republican, state Sen. Mike Fair. It failed to clear the subcommittee level.

Subcommittee members sent a letter to the state’s family court judges to gauge whether Sharia or other foreign laws were impacting S.C. custody and divorce cases.

“We heard no indication from any of the judges that there was a problem,” said state Sen Larry Martin, R-Pickens.

Liberal groups, including the S.C. Progressive Network, say the proposal is a waste of legislative time.

“I’m much more concerned with laws being imposed by aliens from the Planet Oz,” said Brett Bursey, the group’s director. “A stealth-alien invasion of the minds of our legislators is the most plausible explanation for their obsession with fixing things that aren’t broken.”

At least one national group, the New Jersey-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, which works to promote understanding of Islam, says the intent of the state proposals is devious.

“There’s no mistaking the intent of these bills. It’s to provide a mechanism for channeling and cultivating anti-Muslim sentiment,” said council attorney Gadier Abbas.

Recent versions of the bills — like South Carolina’s — do not specifically mention Sharia law, but the intent is clear, Abbas said.

“There are some misconceptions about Islam in the United States,” he said. “That, coupled with a very vocal and well-organized minority of organizations and figures that have had for their mission, for years now, to ensure Muslims are not treated as equals in the United States, is creating this new effort to bring inequality into the laws. It’s alarming.”

Abbas said there are no valid fears of foreign laws being applied in U.S. courtrooms. “Only if American law allows for it does religious tradition or foreign laws even come into play.”

But proponents of the legislation, including the American Public Policy Alliance, point to several court cases as proof that Sharia law is seeping into the U.S. court system.

In one 2009 example, a New Jersey judge denied a Muslim wife’s request for a restraining order after she claimed her husband repeatedly raped her. The court said the man thought it was his religious right to have nonconsensual sex with his wife and, therefore, he did not meet the criminal-intent standard needed to issue the restraining order.

An appellate court reversed the ruling in 2010, granting the restraining order.

In a 1996 case, a Maryland appellate court deferred to a Pakistani court in granting custody of a child to her father in Pakistan instead of her mother in Maryland. One factor mentioned in the ruling was an Islamic belief that a father gets preference in custody cases.

Reach Smith at (803) 771-8658.

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