In the past 11 days, Republican lawmakers in Indiana and Oregon have proposed bills aimed at preventing Islamic law from being used in court cases, an unfounded conspiracy theory that lives on despite a lack of evidence supporting the claim that Muslims in America are trying to subvert the US Constitution.
On Jan. 9, Oregon State Senator Brian Boquist introduced SB 479 — a bill that “Prohibits courts from applying Sharia law.” A week prior, Indiana State Senator Travis Holdman submitted Senate Bill 16, aimed at prohibiting the application of foreign-law in the state. While that bill’s text only mentions “foreign law,” the bill’s author, told the Indianapolis Star that the bill's primary purpose stems from his constituents fear of Sharia law — or Islamic jurisprudence — “being used as a legal standard in our courts."
While the bills themselves may appear straightforward, many advocates see them as unnecessary and redundant — instituting at the state level what would already be in violation of the Constitution of the United States. Some advocates also see these bills as evidence of overt bigotry and an irrational fear of “creeping Sharia” — a term in anti-Muslim circles that stems from an anti-Islam sentiment — and the belief that the US and its citizens are in danger of Islamic law entering the US legal system and affecting daily life.
“These bill and laws are 100% a waste of time because the Constitution is already the law of the land and nothing can replace that,” said Corey Saylor, the director of the Department to Monitor and Combat Islamophobia at the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “It’s a total red herring, and a total waste of taxpayer’s money.” Saylor added that there is no movement to institute any kind of religious law in the US by any Muslim organization.
In 2010 Oklahoma's legislature voted to amend the state’s constitution to include anti-Sharia language. A federal judge in 2013 said the amendment violated the US Constitution. The defeat resulted in subsequent legislative initiatives to use the words “foreign law” instead of “Sharia law,” in order to increase the chances of bills passing muster.
“The one in Oregon would fail even a first-grader's class on the Constitution,” Saylor added.
Sharia — a religious code of conduct, no different than those contained in other Abrahamic religions — has often been used as a fear-inducing term associated with anti-Western beliefs in recent years. Sharia is basically no different than the canon law of the Catholic Church or the requirement that those who follow Judaism to eat kosher foods.
Anti-Sharia or anti-foreign laws have passed in ten states, with dozens more proposed in the last decade — the vast majority of these failing to pass or reach the point of a vote. The Institute of Social Policy and Understanding, a research group that studies various aspects of Muslim American life, found that at least 128 anti-Sharia law or anti-foreign law bills have been introduced since 2011.
The main driving force behind these laws and related conspiracy theories, according to the Anti-Defamation League, has been the work of David Yerushalmi, an Arizona lawyer who the Southern Poverty Law Center called an “anti-Muslim activist.”
Yerushalmi, in addition to his own work and writings, is also associated with other anti-Muslim groups, such as the Center for Security Policy, a group run by noted conspiracy theorist and former Reagan-era Pentagon official Frank Gaffney. He also has represented the Quran-burning Florida pastor Terry Jones and is connected with other anti-Muslim crusaders such as Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer — both founders of the group anti-Muslim group Stop Islamization of America.
Yerushalmi, through his group, American Laws for American Courts (ALAC), has provided the defining template for many anti-foreign law or anti-Sharia bills around the country. Language used in Indiana's bill by State Sen. Holdman appears to contain certain phrases that are similar to Yerushalmi's current bill template.
Holdman did not immediately reply to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment.
The driving force behind the Oregon, appears to be more mundane.
In an email to BuzzFeed News, the bill’s author, State Sen. Boquist, explained that Oregon contains the “strangest constitutions in the nation” which requires that elected officials “provide redress to constituents so they can introduce legislation to be heard,” and “allows groups of citizens to put bills on the statewide ballot.” Boquist says the bill, which is a single line and states, “A court of this state may not consider Sharia law in making judicial decisions,” was submitted by a constituent, and was also submitted by the same constituent two years ago.
“Personally, and constitutionally, I represent every citizen’s access to the legislative process regardless of my own opinions on any topic,” Boquist wrote.