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Bill banning foreign law passes House over protests

TALLAHASSEE — A proposal critics say targets Islam passed the House on Thursday despite heated opposition from two Jewish Democratic lawmakers who called the bill unnecessary and discriminatory.

The measure bans courts or other legal authorities from using religious or foreign law as a part of a legal decision or contract. For example, Florida law would trump foreign law in marriage, divorce and custody cases.

The House passed the bill 92-24, but the measure will stall in the Senate unless leaders steer it to the floor.

Muslim, Jewish and activist groups united against HB 1209 as it advanced through the hearing process in recent weeks. About 50 opponents drove to Tallahassee on Tuesday only to be shut down when time-crunched lawmakers skipped witnesses and passed the bill in a 5-2 vote.

Critics have dubbed the bill as "anti-Sharia," referring to the Koran-based code of some Islamic countries. But Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood, expressed concern that the measure could void divorces mediated through Jewish tribunals.

"I've received thousands of emails from constituents who oppose this," said Schwartz, who fought the bill with Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek.

In floor debate Wednesday, Waldman repeatedly hammered Rep. Larry Metz, R-Eustis, the bill's sponsor, to describe the bill's intent.

Metz eventually conceded that the impetus for the bill are the "cases throughout the country" in which courts have upheld Islamic code.

He couldn't pinpoint any Florida cases the bill would rectify, but Metz said it's important to "jump in front of the problem" if there's a viable solution. He added that the bill applies equally to all foreign and religious code.

"With the increasing internationalization of our economy, the opportunity for foreign law to become an issue in a court proceeding in Florida is greater than ever before," Metz said. "It's incumbent upon the Legislature to provide guidance."

The bill won praise from fellow legislators, including Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island. Metz sponsored a similar proposal last year.

"I believe in the Constitution, and so all I think that bill does is affirm the American Constitution and the supreme law of the land," he said.

Carin Marie Porras, chair-elect of the Family Law Section of the Florida Bar had the opposite take.

"The courts of Florida already refuse to support the laws of another state or country that contradicts our public policy," she said. "But this kind of widespread applicability … it impairs the right of people to contract, it affects cases of divorce … this clearly goes against the fundamental rights of the people of Florida."

Bill banning foreign law passes House over protests 03/01/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 1, 2012 9:13pm]
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