JEFFERSON CITY | Missouri Reps. Paul Curtman and Don Wells agree there’s no evidence that state courts are judging cases based on Islamic principles or foreign laws.
But that’s not stopping them from sponsoring legislation to ban the practice.
Bills introduced this year by the Republican lawmakers aim to prevent Missouri courts from applying laws from other countries or those based on Sharia, the Islamic religious law.
Wells maintains his measure is necessary because an oppressive and violent Islamic legal system is spreading across the world and could someday threaten Missouri.
Curtman’s bill, meanwhile, is less concerned with the encroachment of Islamic law, although its language is a near-exact copy of model legislation from a stridently anti-Muslim source.
Critics in the General Assembly, legal circles and the Muslim community call both measures bigoted and meaningless.
“This is an attack on Islam and clearly an Islamophobia bill,” said Jamilah Nasheed, a St. Louis Democrat who is Muslim. “It’s a bill that’s being pushed by ignorant people that know nothing about Islam.”
Similar measures have been considered in a handful of other states, including Oklahoma, where last November, 70 percent of voters approved a constitutional amendment banning the use of Sharia law in state courts. The amendment has since been challenged in federal court as unconstitutional.
Missouri’s debate comes at a time of increasing scrutiny on Muslim Americans nationally and criticism that they’re being unfairly targeted. That discussion peaked last week with a high-profile congressional hearing examining radicalization in the American Muslim community.
The Missouri lawmakers’ bills differ slightly, as does the reasoning behind their introduction.
The constitutional amendment sponsored by Wells, a Cabool Republican, stipulates that Missouri courts “shall not look to the legal precepts of other nations or cultures” and specifically bars judicial consideration of Sharia law.
He introduced it last month with 106 co-sponsors — 66 percent of the House membership.
“Right now in the world, there is a big push for international law or Sharia law to be practiced and accepted,” Wells said.
This is problematic because Islamic law is “very oppressive for ladies” and mandates violent punishments for even minor crimes, he said, citing Internet research by himself and his legislative assistant.
Wells acknowledged that no such laws are applied or even considered in Missouri courts today, but he suggested they could creep into American law over a period of generations.
“I think it’s just absolutely a guarantee to my children and grandchildren that in the future they will live under the same laws that I grew up under,” he said.
Muslims and experts on Islam, however, said Wells’ suggestions represent a deep misunderstanding of the religion and the concept of Sharia law.
Sharia is not a specific legal code, but a set of interpretations of Islamic scripture, said John Bowen, a professor and expert on Islam at Washington University in St. Louis.
Majority-Muslim countries have applied those interpretations to varying degrees in their formal laws, he said, and Muslim communities in some Western nations have set up Sharia councils to deal with matters such as marriage or the settling of estates that have a religious component.
But few, if any, places explicitly rely on the tenets of Islam to decide legal matters, said Bowen, who has traveled extensively studying Islam and is in London researching English Sharia councils.
When individuals do raise religious issues in legal proceedings, courts are generally skittish, he said.
“There are cases where Muslims make reference to Sharia, but what the courts say is, ‘Look, we can’t act on Sharia any more than we can act on biblical law or orthodox Jewish law,’ ” Bowen said.
Jim Hacking, an attorney for the St. Louis chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, was blunter about the courts’ approach to religious law and the aims of lawmakers such as Wells.
“This is a complete and utter waste of time,” Hacking said. “There’s a little thing called the First Amendment that prohibits religion from being used as the basis for law.”
He added: “It’s a political stunt being done to fan the flames of intolerance, nothing more.”
The other bill under consideration takes a broader approach to the application of foreign laws to Missouri courts and contains no explicit reference to Sharia law.
Exactly what it does, however, depends on whom you ask.
Curtman, a freshman Republican from Pacific who is sponsoring the bill, said it would prevent judges from “ambushing” people by ruling on cases using laws from outside the United States.
“The principle behind it is that our courts should only acknowledge our laws that are representative of our people,” Curtman said. “That’s just a good principle for a democracy in general.”
But the man who actually wrote the language of Curtman’s bill offers a substantially different interpretation of its intent.
Curtman’s bill is nearly identical to model legislation drafted by Arizona-based attorney David Yerushalmi. On Friday, Yerushalmi said his legislation specifies that state courts may not issue rulings based on foreign laws that deny rights granted by the state and under the U.S. Constitution.
Although Yerushalmi’s legislation makes no reference to Sharia, he is an outspoken critic of Islam.
On a network of websites featuring the draft bill that Curtman adopted, Yerushalmi offers a separate “anti-Sharia draft act” that states followers of Sharia pose “an imminent likelihood of violent jihad and acts of terrorism” and should be deported or sentenced to prison for up to 20 years.
Whatever its intent, Curtman’s law may be difficult to apply to the real world if it passes, said Dale Whitman, a professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Missouri School of Law.
A court would have to consider marital laws from another country, for example, if a couple who married elsewhere sought a divorce in a Missouri court.
“It just isn’t a very realistic thing to say” courts cannot consider foreign law, Whitman said.
“Honestly, I can’t figure out any rational reason to adopt such a statute.”