TAMPA — The Hillsborough judge who touched off controversy by saying he would use Islamic law to help decide a lawsuit against a mosque cited a different authority as he ordered the case dismissed.
The U.S. Constitution.
Circuit Judge Richard Nielsen ruled last week that the Constitution barred the court from getting involved in a dispute between the mosque — the Islamic Education Center of Tampa — and several ousted trustees.
The order is something of an about-face for Nielsen, whose earlier ruling that he would use "ecclesiastical Islamic law" to decide an issue in the case triggered national publicity and criticism from some commentators.
In a brief two-page order, Nielsen cited an earlier, precedent-setting ruling by another court in a different case that found "the trial court could not intervene in an internal church governance dispute."
Quoting that decision, Nielsen wrote that the Constitution "permits hierarchical religious organizations to establish their own rules and regulations for internal discipline and governance, and to create tribunals for adjudicating disputes over these matters."
Nielsen concluded, "Once such matters are decided by an ecclesiastical tribunal, the civil courts are to accept the decision as binding on them."
The mosque's attorney, Paul Thanasides, said the ruling should allow the center and its directors to access $2.2 million that had been effectively frozen by the litigation. The money was paid by the state when some of the mosque's property was taken for a road project.
Thanasides said in an interview that the ousted trustees who sued the mosque were properly terminated under the center's rules and procedures. If that is the case, his clients retain firm control of the mosque.
"The law was followed the way it should be," the attorney said, noting his clients were unavailable for comment. "We look forward to a more peaceful future."
Attorney Lee Segal, representing the four ousted trustees, has 30 days to file an appeal. He said Monday that he was unsure if such an appeal would be filed.
"My clients are still weighing their options at this point," Segal said. "We don't know if there is anything we can do."
Nielsen made no attempt in his ruling to reconcile his earlier decision to use Islamic law with the new order dismissing the case. And judges do not comment on pending litigation.
"I just think the judge punted, which he is entitled to do," Segal said.
In his earlier rulings, Nielsen limited his use of Islamic law to deciding whether arbitration by an Islamic scholar mediating a dispute between the mosque and ousted trustees followed the teachings of the Koran.
The arbitrator ruled that the trustees had been improperly ousted. But the arbitration itself is in dispute, with mosque officials saying it never took place.
At the time of Nielsen's original decision last year, the political atmosphere was already charged with debate that Islamic law had gained a toehold in U.S. courts.
Even before Nielsen's ruling, two Florida lawmakers, Sen. Alan Hays and Rep. Larry Metz, announced legislation to prevent the use of any foreign legal code being applied in state courts.
The legislation was not adopted by Florida lawmakers.
Nielsen's order may simply leave both sides to settle the dispute among themselves, attorneys say.
"Maybe they'll do the proper Muslim thing and resolve their differences," Segal said.
William R. Levesque can be reached at email@example.com.