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A federal judge has temporarily stopped a popular ballot initiative from becoming law in Oklahoma. The initiative, which was approved by 70 percent of Oklahoma voters last week, would bar courts from considering international or Muslim law when deciding cases.
NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Muneer Awad was not surprised that Oklahomans passed the amendment to their constitution, which would prohibit courts from recognizing Shariah law, a set of religious practices and guidelines. But he was sad and worried.
Mr. MUNEER AWAD (Oklahoma Chapter, Council on American-Islamic Relations): You have a state-endorsed amendment in our constitution that isolates, targets and marginalizes Muslims as a threat to the American way of life.
HAGERTY: Awad, who heads the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, immediately challenged the new amendment in federal court, telling Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange that it curtails his religious freedom.
Today, the judge granted a temporary restraining order, meaning that the law can't be certified until all the constitutional arguments are heard.
In the courtroom were the sponsors of the amendment, State Representative Rex Duncan and Senator Anthony Sykes. Neither returned repeated calls from NPR, but in another interview, Sykes justified the Shariah amendment this way:
State Senator ANTHONY SYKES (Republican, Oklahoma): They certainly don't respect equal treatment regardless of gender in Shariah law, and are very abusive and very - just downright ill-treat women as unequal citizens in Shariah law. We certainly don't want that here in America.
Mr. AWAD: It's just ridiculous.
HAGERTY: Muneer Awad.
Mr. AWAD: It's a ridiculous and offensive stereotype. We already have laws that prevent violence towards women. You can't engage in a crime and consider it somehow related to your faith.
HAGERTY: Constitutional scholars agree. They say that if a religious practice conflicts with American law, a judge will strike it down.
Marc Stern, a First Amendment lawyer at the American Jewish Committee, says there's no way that fundamentalist Islamic law will be imported here.
Mr. MARC STERN (General Counsel, American Jewish Committee): Stonings and cutting off of hands and people being forced to wear veils and the like are simply not going to happen with the assistance of the courts.
HAGERTY: So what would the law do? Well, it would favor other religious practices over Islamic ones. For example, Stern says, it's common for our court to accept a will or a prenuptial agreement or a contract based on, say, Jewish law.
Mr. STERN: This amendment seems to say the courts can take no notice of Shariah law. It doesn't say you can't take notice of Canon Law or Jewish Halakhah or any other form of religious law that imposes requirements on its believers. That, alone, would seem to be grounds for throwing this out.
HAGERTY: And there's another huge problem with the new amendment, says Joseph Thai, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma's College of Law. It would bar courts in the state from recognizing all international law, treaties, for example, and international business contracts that are often based on foreign law.
Professor JOSEPH THAI (University of Oklahoma College of Law): I think this hurts Oklahoma's economy because it chills international investment to the extent that international investors rely on international law to protect their contract rights. I think it also hurts Oklahoma more broadly because it makes Oklahoma seem a less welcoming place for outsiders.
HAGERTY: It was hard to find anyone who believes Oklahoma's new amendment will survive, but that will be determined later. The next hearing, when the state government defends the measure, is scheduled for November 22nd.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
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