TALLAHASSEE — Two Republican legislators want to make sure Florida courts aren't tainted by what one of them calls foreign "shenanigans": Muslim sharia or legal codes from other nations.
Neither Sen. Alan Hays nor Rep. Larry Metz, though, could name a Florida case where international law or Islamic law has caused a problem in a state court. They said they weren't targeting sharia, a body of law primarily based on the Koran and the Hadith, the sayings of Islam's founder, Mohammed.
But the legislation, which resembles efforts in a dozen other states where Islamic law is under scrutiny, was copied almost word-for-word from the "model legislation" posted on the website of a group called the American Public Policy Alliance.
"American Laws for American Courts was crafted to protect American citizens' constitutional rights against the infiltration and incursion of foreign laws and foreign legal doctrines, especially Islamic Sharia Law," the group's website says.
Hays, R-Umatilla, said he just wants to protect the rights of Floridians.
"I filed a bill that says in the courts of Florida the laws of no other country can be used to influence the decisions of Florida," Hays said. "If it's sharia law or any other law — I don't care what law it is — if it's not a Florida law and if it's some foreign law, it doesn't belong in our courts."
Nezar Hamze, executive director of the South Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he called Hays' office a week ago to discuss the "garbage" bill but never got a call back. If the bill passes, he said, "we are prepared to fight it.
"It's absurd. I've never even heard of a court using sharia law in making a ruling in a case," Hamze said. "If it is intended to combat people's fear of Islamic law, it does a poor job … because it does not mention Islam or sharia but it does mention foreign law, which affects all religions, not just Islam, because you have Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu laws."
One reason sharia isn't mentioned in the bill is due to the U.S. Constitution's ban on religious discrimination or favoritism. Citing the First Amendment, a federal judge recently blocked a voter-approved Oklahoma law targeting sharia.
Conservative activists have increasingly become concerned with sharia. U.S. Rep Peter King, R-N.Y., plans to hold congressional hearings today into Islam and sharia, which he has linked to terrorism.
King was recently the first guest interviewed in a cable news show hosted by sharia critic Brigitte Gabriel, founder of the group ACT! for America, which ballyhooed the recent filing of the Florida legislation.
"Other states have had these shenanigans tried and I don't want that to happen in Florida," Hays said, declining to cite specifics.
Activists with ACT! pointed to a handful of appellate-court cases where Florida courts struggled with Islamic codes and sharia. The cases involved divorce, a contract dispute and an incident where a Muslim woman unsuccessfully argued that she could wear a veil for her driver's license photo. In each case, the courts didn't base their rulings on sharia but on contractual law precepts and prior court rulings.
The American Public Policy Alliance cites 17 cases on its website where sharia has been introduced in courts in other states. In most cases, however, courts ruled that Islamic-based laws didn't apply when they conflicted with laws in the United States.
But the courts have clearly struggled with child-custody and divorce cases that emanate from other countries. Critics of sharia and Islam in general note that women are considered second-class citizens in many Muslim countries, thereby putting them at a disadvantage in the United States when sharia are considered.
Lawyers also have concerns about the legislation, which first appeared last year in the Florida Senate and made it through a committee.
An analysis by Senate staff last year expressed concern that the law could violate the U.S. Constitution's separation-of-powers doctrine because it could lead state courts to "interfere with the federal government's ability to "govern foreign policy with one voice and the judiciary's constitutional role as the sole interpreter of laws."
Ed Mullins, the head of the Florida Bar's International Law Section, said he was concerned that the bill could interfere with federal rules governing arbitration. But he wasn't sure.
"The bill is badly written," he said.
Mullins, the Office of State Court Administration and a spokesman for the Florida Supreme Court said they were unaware of cases where sharia or other international laws were infringing the rights of people in Florida courts.
Rep. Metz, R-Yalaha, said he's just trying to ensure that judges don't use foreign laws that disadvantage Florida citizens.
"We want to make sure we don't have an unconstitutional outcome in our court system," he said.
Miami Herald staff writer Jaweed Kaleem contributed to this report.