Not wanting “religious law creeping into our courts,” Rep. RoseMarie Swanger has introduced legislation that would prohibit the application of Sharia law in Pennsylvania tribunals.
“We see foreign law creeping into the courts in other states,” the Lebanon County Republican told the Chronicle. “I don’t want that happening in Pennsylvania.”
Saying that under Sharia law, if “someone steals, they cut off a hand, and if someone commits adultery they can be killed by their family,” Swanger warned: “These things should not be recognized in our courts.”
With the introduction of Swanger’s anti-Sharia law bill, HB 2029, Pennsylvania joins the ranks of 26 other states that are considering enacting similar legislation. Oklahoma and Tennessee have passed such laws, with Oklahoma’s law currently being challenged in federal court.
But Jewish leaders are criticizing the bill as unnecessary and encroaching on religious liberties.
“It is a solution looking for a problem,” Rabbi Scott Aaron, community scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning, wrote to the Chronicle. “United States law already provides constitutional protections that ensure no religious law can supercede civil law without a constitutionally valid reason. This bill is at best redundant, and at worst, a danger to existing religious protections for all. Jews need to remember that we were at the historic forefront of ensuring the protections of the Constitution applied to everyone in order to ensure it would definitely apply to us. If we start being selective in whom it applies to, it is only a matter of time before our protections are endangered too.”
Nationwide, the proposed anti-Sharia bills are opposed by various Islamic groups claiming discrimination. But Jews also need to be made aware of the bills, and work to stop them before they become law, according to Deborah Fidel, executive director of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee.
“This has not been a hot button issue in the Jewish community,” Fidel said. “This wasn’t something on the Jewish community’s radar, but it needs to be, because whenever there’s a case of bigotry, it’s the American Jewish tradition to call it out.”
In a forum held this month at Rodef Shalom Congregation, and sponsored by the PAJC, a panel of religious law experts discussed the implications of HB 2029. Included on the panel were Aaron; Haider Ala Hamoudi, assistant professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh; and Rev. Lawrence DiNardo, vicar for canonical services in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. More than 200 people attended the forum.
HB 2029, if enacted, would prohibit application of “foreign” law when it is found to be inconsistent with the principles of the federal and state Constitutions.
Swanger claims that her bill does not target Sharia law, but instead applies to “all foreign laws,” with the exception of laws under which businesses contract to subject themselves.
But in a letter to congressional colleagues, dated June 14, 2011, Swanger wrote: “America has unique values of liberty which do not exist in foreign legal systems, particularly Shariah [sic] Law. … The embrace of foreign legal systems such as Shariah Law, which is inherently hostile to our constitutional liberties, is a violation of the principles on which our nation was founded.”
Fidel believes the proposed bill, if passed, would affect Jews as well as Muslims.
“As Jews, we have a horse in this race,” Fidel said. “It’s targeting Muslims, but it directly affects us. One needs to remember we have a religious court system called the beit din, which can arbitrate legal disputes that are then enforced by civil courts.”
Jews should care about HB 2029 on two levels, according to Aaron.
“First, in terms of the ability to follow halacha, it could certainly jeopardize that choice, because it could prevent courts from honoring or at least weighing someone’s halachic decisions in matters such as divorce, child rearing, end of life, autopsy, property and a variety of other areas that Jews might follow a halachic process as a religious obligation,” Aaron said. “Citizens have certain rights to have those beliefs considered in courts so it isn’t a matter of ‘foreign law’ for us.
“Second,” Aaron continued, “Jews should never forget that we have been the targets of legal systems since before the Crusades that saw the law as a way to exclude ideas and beliefs that the majority did not necessarily agree with. The Nazis, the communists and even pre-civil rights America all specifically stated or tacitly condoned exclusion and discrimination of Jews and Jewish law under their legal systems as a way of limiting our place in society. We live under a legal system here that has fully included and protected us and our beliefs alongside all of its citizens; we of all peoples should loathe the idea of protection and inclusion being infringed upon for another religious community of citizens.”
The bill is based on a model drafted by anti-Sharia activist David Yerushalmi, a New York attorney, and an Orthodox Jew. The Anti-Defamation League has rebuked his work, citing a “record of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-black bigotry” on its website.
According to Fidel, HB 2029 is poorly drafted, and she does not expect it to pass. Still, she said it is important for Jews to speak out against it.
“The thing that bothers me about it is that its intent is to make one religious group feel less equal, and less welcome here,” she said. “We have, thank God, been so successful in this country, we sometimes forget we are a religious minority. We have to be on the lookout for the rights of other minorities. It is important for me to come out as the director of a Jewish organization to say this is a dangerous trend for our democratic society.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)