JEFFERSON CITY | Missouri Reps. Paul Curtman and Don Wells agree thereâ€™s no evidence that state courts are judging cases based on Islamic principles or foreign laws.
But thatâ€™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.
Curtmanâ€™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.
â€œThis is an attack on Islam and clearly an Islamophobia bill,â€ said Jamilah Nasheed, a St. Louis Democrat who is Muslim. â€œItâ€™s a bill thatâ€™s being pushed by ignorant people that know nothing about Islam.â€
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.
Missouriâ€™s debate comes at a time of increasing scrutiny on Muslim Americans nationally and criticism that theyâ€™re being unfairly targeted. That discussion peaked last week with a high-profile congressional hearing examining radicalization in the American Muslim community.
The Missouri lawmakersâ€™ bills differ slightly, as does the reasoning behind their introduction.
The constitutional amendment sponsored by Wells, a Cabool Republican, stipulates that Missouri courts â€œshall not look to the legal precepts of other nations or culturesâ€ and specifically bars judicial consideration of Sharia law.
He introduced it last month with 106 co-sponsors â€” 66 percent of the House membership.
â€œRight now in the world, there is a big push for international law or Sharia law to be practiced and accepted,â€ Wells said.
This is problematic because Islamic law is â€œvery oppressive for ladiesâ€ 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.
â€œI think itâ€™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,â€ he said.
Muslims and experts on Islam, however, said Wellsâ€™ 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.
â€œThere are cases where Muslims make reference to Sharia, but what the courts say is, â€˜Look, we canâ€™t act on Sharia any more than we can act on biblical law or orthodox Jewish law,â€™â€‚â€ Bowen said.
Jim Hacking, an attorney for the St. Louis chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, was blunter about the courtsâ€™ approach to religious law and the aims of lawmakers such as Wells.
â€œThis is a complete and utter waste of time,â€ Hacking said. â€œThereâ€™s a little thing called the First Amendment that prohibits religion from being used as the basis for law.â€
He added: â€œItâ€™s a political stunt being done to fan the flames of intolerance, nothing more.â€
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.
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