Maneer Awad, executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, said the legislation unfairly targets Muslim-Americans living in the state. He also said it would jeopardize contracts that state businesses have with international or overseas companies, concerns echoed by a state business group. Other critics said it was targeting a nonexistent problem.
“This bill will harm our state through using bigotry and encouraging divisive politics, while discouraging businesses,” Awad said during a news conference at the Capitol. “This is an unconstitutional bill that denies Oklahomans their First Amendment right to freedom of religion, and it presents imminent harm to our business community.”
The bill prohibits any court or agency rulings based on foreign law “that would not grant the parties affected by the ruling or decision the same fundamental liberties, rights, and privileges granted under the United States and Oklahoma Constitutions.” The legislation has been approved by the House, but it likely won't get a hearing in the Senate.
A state ballot measure approved by 70 percent of Oklahoma voters in November prohibits courts from considering Sharia, or Islamic, law. But a federal judge put the proposed constitutional amendment on hold after Awad sued, claiming it was unconstitutional. An appeal is pending with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
To get around the judge's ruling, the bill was introduced to put those provisions into state law. Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, said her bill simply reflects what voters wanted.
“This bill is American law for American courts. That's what it's about,” she said. “This bill does not in any way violate the First Amendment, which is freedom of religion. It doesn't trample any other rights given in the constitution.”
She claimed that Sharia law has been brought into court cases “all across the country” and been the ruling factor. No such cases have been heard in Oklahoma.
Kern's bill passed the House on a 76-3 vote, but it isn't expected to receive a hearing this year in the Senate Rules Committee. Kern said Monday there was a “strong possibility” she would try to revive the measure by attaching an amendment to a live bill.
But officials with the State Chamber, an association of businesses and industries in Oklahoma, are concerned the proposal may “shut the door on any Oklahoma company wishing to do business or make investment internationally,” chamber spokeswoman Jennifer Monies said.
“Additionally, it will severely limit the opportunity for international investors to make investment in Oklahoma,” Monies said.
Others said it was simply unnecessary.
Joseph Thai, a constitutional law professor at the University of Oklahoma, described the bill as a “solution in search of a problem” and said the measure is rife with unintended consequences.
“There is no danger of Sharia law or any foreign law overtaking Oklahoma because state courts already refuse to apply outside law that is contrary to state public policy under traditional judicial principles,” Thai said. “There is, however, real danger that poorly drafted, far-reaching bills like this one will wreak havoc on the state legal system and scare away businesses.”
Sen. Anthony Sykes, the Senate sponsor of Kern's bill, disagreed and said “we've already had cases in America where Sharia law has been applied.” But he said he wants to wait until the lawsuit challenging the ballot measure is settled. He expects Kern's bill will be revived next session.
“There's not an imaginary threat here. It's real,” said Sykes, R-Moore.
Similar measures restricting the use of foreign laws are pending in 20 other states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Kern, a former public schoolteacher and the wife of a Baptist minister, made headlines in 2008 when she said homosexuality is a greater threat to the United States than terrorism.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, earlier this year included Kern in its list of a dozen state lawmakers noted for what the center describes as their “radicalism.”
Mark Potok, a spokesman for SPLC, criticized Kern's bill as “complete and utter foolishness.”
“This is an absurd political distraction by people pandering to the nutty far-right elements in their base,” Potok said. “It's the worst kind of posturing. Not only does it create a non-existent problem out of thin air, but it effectively demonizes an entire subset of the American population.”