Florida ‘Anti-Sharia’ Bill is Bad Law

Apr 18

This article was coauthored by Mark Schlakman  senior program director at the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights. Parvez Ahmed  associate professor of finance at the Coggin College of Business, University of North Florida, and frequent commentator on the American Muslim experience. Jack Romberg Rabbi at Temple Israel in Tallahassee.

A version of this article appeared in the Tallahassee DemocratFlorida Times UnionGainesville Sun,  Tampa Tribune and Panama City Herald.

As the Legislature enters the final weeks of the session, it seemingly is poised to pass SB 58, a bill titled Application of Foreign Law in Certain Cases. This legislation is controversial on many grounds, especially given its original incarnation as an anti-sharia law bill, similar to at least 35 bills introduced in 15 other states around the country.

Simply put, this kind of legislation runs afoul of basic tenets of constitutional law and overriding principles of American jurisprudence. Moreover, its sponsors haven’t demonstrated any tangible need for it.

The American Bar Association generally opposes such legislation because it’s “duplicative of safeguards that are already enshrined in federal and state law. … Initiatives that target an entire religion or stigmatize an entire religious community, such as those explicitly aimed at ‘sharia law,’ are inconsistent with some of the core principles and ideals of American jurisprudence.”

At best, SB 58 is unnecessary legislation that civil libertarians, conservatives and liberals share cause to oppose.

Its history is curious and its potential impact is wide-ranging.

With the bill defeated in prior legislative sessions, its sponsors recharacterized it presumably to blunt criticism by attempting to distance it from the original language that overtly targeted sharia, which to Muslims is what Halakha is to Jews and canon is to Catholics The current version makes no such direct reference and instead targets “foreign law.” The corresponding staff analysis warns legislators it may be fundamentally flawed nonetheless.

At the most rudimentary level, our law is derived largely from English common law. If SB 58 were to become law in Florida, the resulting confusion would likely precipitate a flood of litigation, Florida lawyers being the principal beneficiaries.

For instance, “this could prohibit Florida courts from recognizing divorces of Jews under Israeli law,” advised David Barkey, with the Anti-Defamation League, founded in 1913 “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people.”

Barkey; Carlos Osorio, with the International Law Section of The Florida Bar; and Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, also observed in a column they co-authored for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that the bill “threatens to derail Florida’s role as an international trade hub by complicating and destabilizing the personal and commercial lives of foreign nationals sent here from such important partners as Israel, Latin America and elsewhere.”

The potential impact upon trade and economic development should not be underestimated.

Joel Hunter, senior pastor at Northland Church in Orlando, asserted “Senate Bill 58 will do more harm than good if enacted. Its effect will be to increase bias rather than protection. It seems to me to be a cure without a disease. Existing law and judicial precedent have proved sufficient to deal with any concerns addressed by this proposed law. … As a conservative evangelical Christian, it is unusual for me to side with the ACLU, but I think objecting to unnecessary law is a conservative principle as well as a libertarian one.”

SB 58 is sponsored by Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla. Interestingly, a few days after the Senate committee narrowly approved Hays’ bill 5-4 on the strength of the surprise swing vote of Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, Scott Maxwell reported in the Orlando Sentinel that “Republicans did something for Thompson, inserting into the budget a request for $150,000 for a project involving mobile farmers markets … the budget item was co-sponsored by Sen. Hays.”

Today (April 16, 2013) is the fourth Florida Muslim Capitol Day, one of dozens of such days that organizers of various interests and causes schedule routinely each year during the session. It was launched five years ago to demystify certain aspects of Islam and underscore that the vast majority of Muslims residing in Florida are law-abiding, contributing members of our communities who share the same kinds of concerns, goals and aspirations as do other Floridians.

We respectfully urge legislative leadership to take whatever steps may be necessary to ensure, in consultation with the governor, that SB 58 does not become law in Florida.