Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Inconsistency in laws restricting "Sharia" law

I've caught a few bits in the news lately about laws that are passing across the country regarding "Sharia" and its restriction. Specifically, these laws state that courts and judges are restricted from referring to Sharia in their decisions— or the laws are more broadly-written, restricting reference to "foreign" laws.

Now, I am in no way a constitutional scholar or a legal professional; that said, I'm not really sure if those in the first category stand much of a chance with regard to constitutionality, given that they single out the teachings of a specific religion (Islam) and suppress it, which sounds like a fairly straightforward conflict with the "free exercise clause" of the First Amendment. (At least one state that has passed such a law includes language within the law describing why it is NOT in violation of this clause, though when reading through some of that language it felt a bit like something caught between the fallacy of "it isn't because we said it isn't" and a classic case of "she doth protesteth too much".) But I'll leave that for the Supreme Court to sort out; I'm frankly not all that concerned with these laws.

Where my concern is today is that the broader laws, restricting any reference to "foreign" laws, are problematic in their inconsistency— though not in the ways that the "political left" is commonly attacking them. Here's what I mean…

First, let's consider what Sharia actually is. Depending on who you listen to, Sharia might simply be a general set of ethical principles directing Muslims in their consideration (probably a bit watered-down), or it might be the tool of extremists to justify acts of terrorism with religious texts (probably a bit over-simplified and alarmist). The fact is, different Muslims view Sharia differently. There are cases where Sharia is the state rule, and this sometimes has horrifying consequences; and it should be raise cautious curiosity to consider what it may mean if parts of Britain are designated as under Sharia, as has been requested by some communities. However, to assume that ALL Muslims believe that the right application of Sharia means that a rape victim should be stoned for adultery is likely akin to assuming that all Christians believe that we should stone homosexuals and disobedient children.

What is interesting about these new laws is that they are coming out of a base of "right-wing" conservative political efforts that are grounded in evangelical Christians. Many of the politicians who are standing up in favor of these laws (or at least in open opposition to any allowance of Sharia) are the same ones who are working hard to build their case that they are the heirs apparent to the conservative evangelical vote. They are appealing to the "Christian nation" ideas and presenting the mere acknowledgement of Sharia as a threat to the very foundations of "Christian America".

The problem is that the laws being passed that restrict any reference to "foreign" laws implicitly do two things at once: first, they erect a view of religious law as inherently "foreign" (because it is inconceivable, I suppose, that someone could be both a Muslim and a U.S. citizen, or that whole groups of Muslims could assemble lawfully within the U.S.— at least, that is the apparent motivation behind the law in Tennessee directly targeting Sharia, authored by a politician who supported the opposition to a local Islamic study center that eventually ended in arson). Second, they establish a precedent that reference to religious law has no place in a constitutionally-sound court system— or alternatively, anyone who is informed by their religious laws is unfit to serve in the courts.

Here's the first inconsistency of this: the same folks promoting the ouster of a Muslim judge for whom Sharia is an informing element in his worldview are those who claim that, unequivocally, the law of the land in the U.S. ought to be the biblical law. In other words, they are uncomfortable with anyone legislating from the courts, unless it happens to be a Christian who is exercising his Biblical Christian worldview. Now, I don't have a problem with Christian judges, politicians, and others living consistently in accordance with their biblical Christian world views; I'd like to hope that I am both a teacher and (sometimes) model of that, myself. But to say that Christians get to do this, but those of other faiths should be prohibited by law from doing so, is at least inconsistent with our Constitution. Whatever that is, it isn't the right to free exercise of religion.

But the second and more weighty inconsistency is this: in doing this, these Christians (and others, admittedly) have just laid the groundwork for the eventual marginalization and exile of Christians themselves from the courts and political system. If "foreign laws" include Sharia, which is derived from the Quran, then it is only a matter of time before they also include, by definition, the 10 Commandments or any other ethical structure based on the Bible. Let's not be naïve: many U.S. citizens— perhaps a small majority, or perhaps even more than that— are very uncomfortable with what they think of as the "typical evangelical": a Pat Robertson-supporting, homophobic, patriarchal, damnation-declaring, unthinking religious zealot. I'm not very comfortable with that being the default image in the average unbelieving American's mind, but it is probably more typical than not. Just how long will a majority that thinks like that stand for Christian judges exercising their Christian worldviews in the practice of their work?

Christians should be for the free exercise of religion for everyone, not just for Christians. We should love the Constitution of the U.S. that way. More importantly, we should love our neighbor that way.

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