Monday, November 15, 2010

Oklahoma Surprise: Islam as an Election Issue

Oklahoma Surprise: Islam as an Election Issue
New York Times
November 14, 2010

OKLAHOMA CITY — Cory Williams, a Democratic state representative from Stillwater, expected his opponent in the recent election to label him a free-spending liberal allied with President Obama.

Residents at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City last week. A lawsuit has stalled the ballot initiative.

He did not foresee that he would be accused of trying to subject Oklahomans to Islamic law.

Mr. Williams was one of 10 Democrats who voted against putting a state constitutional amendment on the ballot that would forbid state judges from considering international or Islamic law in deciding cases. He considered the idea unnecessary, since the First Amendment already bans state-imposed religion.

His Republican challenger sent out mailers showing him next to a shadowy figure in an Arab headdress. On the other side, the flier said Mr. Williams wanted to allow “Islamic ‘Shariah’ law to be used by Oklahoma courts” and suggested that he was part of “an international movement, supported by militant Muslims and liberals,” to establish Islamic law throughout the world.

“At the end of the day, it was just fearmongering,” Mr. Williams said.

He won by 280 votes, but many of his fellow Democrats failed to hold their seats...

“It was inflammatory, and it got people to turn out,” said State Representative Wallace Collins, a Democrat from Norman who lost a close race. “It worked for them.”

The day after the election, Muneer Awad, executive director of the local Council on American-Islamic Relations, filed a lawsuit. Mr. Awad argued that the amendment violated the freedom of religion clause of the United States Constitution, because it singled out Shariah law and Islam for special treatment rather than banning consideration of all religious codes. That amounts to state disapproval of Islam, he argued.

Last Monday, Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange of Federal District Court agreed that Mr. Awad’s complaint had merit, finding that the amendment’s “primary purpose inhibits religion.” She temporarily halted the certification of the election results and scheduled a hearing for next week.

Outside the courthouse, Mr. Duncan said the restraining order “thwarts the will of the people.” He said the amendment was never intended as an attack on Muslims, but as an effort to prevent what he called “activist judges” from using Islamic law in deciding cases.

Law professors have begun to raise questions about the unintended consequences of the amendment. Because it also “forbids courts from using or considering international law,” it could complicate contractual arrangements between Oklahoma companies and those with headquarters abroad. The amendment might also prevent judges from referring to the Ten Commandments or exploring English common law in their decisions.

“You throw a series of ambiguous ill-conceived words into the State Constitution and you don’t know what will happen,” said Harry F. Tepker Jr., a law professor at the University of Oklahoma. “It’s a mess.”

Ms. Fallin, who has strong support from business, has begun to back away from the amendment, even though she supported it. “It’s something that she will have to meet with the attorney general on and look at the legal specifics,” said Alex Weintz, a spokesman.

Muslim leaders in Oklahoma said the amendment felt like a slap in the face. They worry that marriages, wills, divorces and contracts — often drawn up between parties under Islamic principles then submitted to a court for approval — will no longer be valid. Jews and Roman Catholics often follow the same procedure in civil matters.

But many Muslims said they were more worried about the anti-Muslim mood that fueled the amendment’s passage. The vote here follows the controversy over a Christian pastor’s aborted plan to burn Korans in Florida and the opposition to an Islamic community center near ground zero in Manhattan...

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