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District Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange issues preliminary injunction barring certification of Oklahoma Constitutional Amendment on Islamic and International Law

Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange

Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange

The New York Times reports:

An Oklahoma constitutional amendment aimed at stopping the use of Islamic law in its courts was dealt a serious blow on Monday when a federal judge temporarily blocked the state from putting it into effect.The amendment would forbid state judges from considering Islamic or international law in their decisions. Known as State Question 755, the measure passed with 70 percent of the vote during the Republican landslide on Nov. 2, and has generated bitter debate.

Muslims claim the state is discriminating against their religion, while supporters — many of them Christian conservatives — say the amendment is needed to thwart what they maintain is an effort by radical Muslims to impose Shariah law in the United States.

Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange of Federal District Court in Oklahoma City, however, said in her decision to grant a preliminary injunction on Monday that the measure did not appear to pass constitutional muster.

It conveys a message, she said, that the state favors one religion or particular belief over others. The federal courts have long held that such a message violates the First Amendment’s clause prohibiting the establishment of a state religion, she said.

“While defendants contend that the amendment is merely a choice-of-law provision that bans state courts from applying the law of other nations or cultures — regardless of what faith they may be based on, if any — the actual language of the amendment reasonably, and perhaps more reasonably, may be viewed as specifically singling out Shariah law, conveying a message of disapproval of plaintiff’s faith,” the judge wrote.

The judge barred the State Election Commission from certifying the results of the election until she makes a final ruling. She set no timetable for her decision.

Muneer Awad, the executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, had sued to block the amendment, arguing that the state was condemning his religious beliefs.

“We are definitely satisfied,” Mr. Awad said. “She is recognizing the majority vote cannot be used to take away my constitutional rights.”

At a hearing last week, Scott Boughton, an assistant attorney general for the state, said the measure was not intended to infringe on anyone’s religion; it was intended to keep Oklahoma judges from looking at the legal principles of other nations and cultures in applying state and federal law. When the judge asked whether that had ever happened in Oklahoma, however, Mr. Boughton acknowledged that he did not know of an instance in which Shariah law had been invoked by the courts.

Mr. Awad testified in court that the amendment was impossible to enforce, since the concept of Shariah law varies from person to person. He asserted the law might make it impossible for the courts to enforce his own last will and testament, since it requests he be buried according to Islamic principles.

Many Muslims in Oklahoma worry the courts will no longer be able to adjudicate Islamic marriages, wills and contracts.

In her ruling on Monday, Judge Miles-LaGrange said she agreed with Mr. Awad’s contention that the definition of Shariah shifts depending on the country in which a Muslim lives and on each person’s religious beliefs.

She noted that one strong precept of Islamic law is to abide by the law of one’s land, and this explains why American Muslims do not generally practice bigamy, even though the Koran allows it.

The judge concluded that Shariah law “lacks a legal character” and “is not ‘law’ but is religious traditions that differ among Muslims.” As a result, she said, the amendment “conveys a message of disapproval of plaintiff’s faith and, consequently, has the effect of inhibiting plaintiff’s religion.”

Supporters of the measure in the state Legislature had portrayed it as a protection against what they see as an international effort by radical Muslims to establish Islamic law throughout the world.

The principal author, State Representative Rex Duncan, a Republican from Sand Springs, did not respond to telephone messages on Monday. He has called the amendment a part of “a war for the survival of America” and “a pre-emptive strike.”

During the election, a nonprofit group in Florida, Act! For America, spent heavily on one-minute radio advertisements to encourage people to vote yes on the measure. The group also paid for 600,000 telephone calls to likely voters, featuring the recorded voice of Jim Woolsey, the former C.I.A. director and Oklahoma native who endorsed the amendment.

Since the lawsuit was filed, the main mosques in Tulsa and Oklahoma City have received a flood of hate mail, including one video of a man destroying a mosque.

“As the judge pointed out, the will of the people is not always just,” said Imad Enchassi, the imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City. “The will of the people seems like it was manipulated by a well-funded campaign of hate, bigotry and xenophobia.”

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.