The 2nd District Court of Appeals has upheld a March decision made by Hillsborough Judge Richard Nielsen that was guided by Islamic law. According to the St. Petersburg Times, the decision involved a lawsuit governing control of $2.2 million in assets between the Islamic Education Center of Tampa and former trustees of the mosque.
Nielsen’s use of Islamic law was limited to determining whether having an Islamic scholar help arbitrate the case was consistent with the Quran. The mosque protested Nielsen’s decision, but the Florida court denied the appeal.
The controversy surrounding Islamic law is overblown. Religious law has been recognized before by U.S. courts where both parties agree, and despite a few poorly judged examples, it should always be superseded by U.S. law.
Critics, such as Oklahoma state Rep. Rex Duncan, see legal decisions such as the Florida case as evidence of the “creeping” influence of Islam in America. According to NPR, Duncan proposed an amendment to the Oklahoma Constitution that bans the use of Shariah or any foreign law in U.S. courts.
The U.S. is a strong supporter of the separation of church and state, but judges have allowed religious law to enter U.S. civil courts when it was agreeable to both parties. In Jabri v. Qaddura, the 2nd Court of Appeals of Texas ruled that a family law dispute could be arbitrated according to a religious third party. In this case, the court enforced an agreement between two parties, arbitrated by Texas Islamic Court, involving a divorce and child custody. These exceptions could also be made for Christian, Jewish and Hindu laws.
Muslims and non-Muslims should relax, as the superiority of U.S. common law is not disappearing. Religious law is not legally binding in our court system. Those who want American law will have it. Christian, Hebrew and Islamic laws are superseded by state and federal laws.
It is not up to the courts to punish a person for not adhering to religious beliefs, such as regularly attending religious services or following religious dietary restrictions. Attempting to discriminate against offenders by denying employment, business or public services is illegal, putting excommunication or religious isolation on flimsy legal grounds in the U.S. Religious communities can, at best, ask the offender to not participate in religious services, and exercise their freedom of speech admonishing the offender’s actions.
Instituting religious intolerance in law that intrudes on personal freedom and choice is why religious law is not legally binding. Yet, if both parties agree without evidence of coercion, why not allow the two parties to use Shariah, Hasidic, Mormon or Scientologist law in civil court cases?
Making a clear case for accepting religious law on a mutually agreeable basis will allow for American justice and freedom to prevail for religious citizens, as well as secular ones.
Niko Milstrey is a graduate student studying economics.