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Rick PlastererJuly 20, 2012
Representatives of Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim religious traditions discussed the effort to enact anti-sharia laws in various states in light of the historic role of religious freedom in America. The panel discussion was jointly sponsored by KARAMAH, Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, and Shoulder to Shoulder (an interfaith organization focusing on ending anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States). And the July 16 talk was in Washington, D.C. at National City Church, a prominent Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation.
At the outset, the moderator identified a central theme—that popular concern about the use of sharia law, the law of Muslim societies, has grown with anti-Muslim sentiment. Currently several states are considering anti-sharia laws, which prohibit the use of sharia laws by judges. These proposed state laws may refer to “foreign law,” but a major part of their focus is against the use of sharia law.
Robert Destrow, Dean of the School of Law at the Catholic University of America spoke first. He presented the experience of Catholics in America with religious persecution. This included anti-Catholic riots in the nineteenth century, and the questioning of John Kennedy’s loyalty when he was a presidential candidate. Dean Destrow seemed to see a parallel between the Catholic Church’s current struggle to maintain the specifically Catholic identity of its educational and charitable institutions and the desire of some American Muslims to use sharia law to order their lives. He noted that the right of individuals and organizations to conduct themselves by religious precepts are in danger when they are serving the general public. He said the real conflict concerns how religious freedom requires that people relate to one another, and what the “tenor and character of society” will be.
Rabbi David Saperstein, a Reform Jewish rabbi and Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, spoke next. He said that Jewish religious courts have historically been central in Jewish life and emphasized that civil courts in the United States recognize the decisions of Jewish courts if the participants in these cases are voluntarily part of their communities. Similarly, the use of sharia law among Muslims should be recognized by American courts. This recognition is part of religious freedom, which is a core principle of the American constitutional structure. Rabbi Saperstein said liberty of conscience exists because it is part of the more general concept of religious freedom. To prohibit the use of sharia law among Muslims is “un-American at the deepest and most profound level … Nobody should be made to feel like strangers in their own land,” the rabbi argued. He did concede, however, that American society has done better at absorbing Muslims than European society has.
Dr. Azizah Y. al-Hibri, Esq., Founder and Chair of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights and professor emeritus at the law school at the University of Richmond, weighed in afterward. While acknowledging that anti-sharia laws are not likely to cause discrimination, she said they are troublesome as an expression of sentiment against Muslims. She spoke of the “otherness of certain groups” in American society and claimed that Muslims are increasingly regarded as an alien group in American society. Al-Hibri then gave examples the longstanding presence of Muslims in American society. She compared the Jeffersonian principle of freedom of religion with the Muslim belief in the dignity of persons before God and the Koranic principle that there is “no coercion in Islam.” And she referred to the prophet Mohammed’s recognition of the rights of Jews and Christians. Al-Hibri said that anti-sharia laws will have a “chilling effect” on Muslims in the public practice of their religion. She gave the example of a Muslim woman in a state affected by the anti-sharia movement concerned that she would be unable to wear a scarf in public.
In response to a question about whether sharia law would be applied to non-Muslims, Rabbi Saperstein said that it would not be the case. In response to another question about whether the recognition of religious law could be used to defend religious persons against being legally required to provide services to homosexuals that they deem immoral, he said that people differ on how religious freedom should relate to antidiscrimination law. Professor Destrow said that courts have tended to favor minorities in disputes about rights, and the real question is whether people have a duty to do things they don’t believe in. In answer to another question about how the “death for apostasy” rule in sharia law could relate to American constitutional law, no definite answer emerged from panelists. But Dr. al-Hibri said that the death penalty for apostasy has been traced to punishment for treason and the loss of military secrets by Muslims at the time of Mohammed.
Several questioners asked impassioned questions suggesting that sharia law indeed poses a threat to American freedom. One asked whether sharia law poses the risk of a parallel legal system, perhaps threatening the freedom of Americans generally. Another asked why mainstream Muslims in Muslim majority societies are not speaking out against extremism and violence. And another question was why American judges are citing sharia law in their decisions. Rabbi Saperstein again emphasized that sharia law in the United States can be applied only to Muslims on a voluntary basis. Panelists all agreed that everyone should speak against extremist actions, and that American courts are in error if they cite sharia law as applying to non-Muslims. Rabbi Saperstein said religious law is constitutional in the United States as long as it does not violate fundamental legal rights.
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