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Alabama Joins Wave of States Banning Foreign Laws

Most states have at least considered banning foreign laws in their courts in recent years. Opponents say the controversial bans target Islam and are based on stereotypes.

The Alabama Supreme Court building
The Alabama Supreme Court building
FlickrCC/Thomas A
Alabama has become the seventh state to ban Sharia law via a ballot measure that prohibits its courts from considering foreign, international or religious law.

With 79 percent of precincts reporting Tuesday night, the ballot measure, called the “American and Alabama Laws and Alabama Courts Amendment,” passed overwhelmingly with 72 percent of voters in support.

The ban clarifies the state constitution to say that other state laws or foreign law cannot be used in ways that violate state law or rights under the Alabama Constitution or the U.S. Constitution. In 2012, an unsuccessful ballot measure, also proposed by Republican state Sen. Gerald Allen, would have explicitly banned state courts from implementing Islamic Shariah law.

Six states have similar foreign law bans, with North Carolina's enacted most recently last year. The others are Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, South Dakota and Tennessee. Missouri also passed a measure banning foreign law last year, but Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the bill because of its potential impact on international adoptions. Oklahoma's voters approved a ban, which explicitly referred to Sharia law, in 2010. But this year, it was struck down by a federal appeals court for being discriminatory. Still, the issue has permeated across the country: All but 16 states have considered such a measure in the past five years.

Opponents to such bans say they are based on stereotypes and a fundamental misunderstanding about Islam. In 2013, a Brennan Center for Justice report called the bans anti-Muslim and cast them as “thinly concealed attempts” to demoralize the faith. The report warned that the bans can have unintended consequences like disrupting marital prenuptial agreements or invalidating court decisions in other states. Especially in divorce and contract law, religious beliefs (like Sharia, orthodox Jewish or Catholic canon) can factor into how judges or arbitrators preside over a dispute. For example, a couple may sign a prenuptial agreement that requires them to go to an imam and that a religious leader must conduct the mediation. Alabama’s ballot measure nullifies that requirement. 

Although the Muslim community often remains the target of wider, foreign law bans, Christian leaders had stepped up in opposition to Alabama’s proposal in recent weeks, calling the ban redundant and a waste of time. People back these proposals because they erroneously believe they “[will] score political points with the Christian community,” said Randy Brinson, the president of the Christian Coalition of Alabama, in a speech last month.

Ron Stief, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, applauded the efforts of that coalition, saying the advocates "made it clear that attacks on the religious community like Amendment One won't go unnoticed by people of faith in Alabama."

"National and statewide leaders believe we can replicate the intensity of coalitions like this one in Alabama to build momentum, despite this setback, to defeat extremism in our statehouses or wherever it rears its ugly head," he said.

Liz Farmer, a former Governing staff writer covering fiscal policy, helps lead the Pew Charitable Trusts’ state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource.
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