A bill that makes no mention of Sharia Law nonetheless sparked an intense debate Thursday in the House Judiciary Committee on the need for Arkansas to gird itself against such foreign influence in its courts.
It passed out of the Committee on a voice vote along party lines. It goes now before the full House.
House Bill 1041 is “An act to protect the rights and privileges granted under the Arkansas Constitution and the United States Constitution; to declare American Laws for American courts.” It’s sponsored by state Rep. Brandt Smith (R-Jonesboro), a member of the committee, who testified alongside Marine Corps. Col. Paul Deckert (Ret.) from the Center for Security Policy, a Washington think tank whose website encourages citizen oversight of American mosques among other issues of domestic security.
Neither man could name an instance of foreign law bearing on the decisions of a state or federal court case in Arkansas. Both men cited examples of parental kidnapping as cases motivating such action; that is, where a foreign-born parent fled the country with a child, leaving the other parent behind and without redress. (Neither made clear how House Bill 1041 addresses that.)
As an erstwhile Miller County district judge and has served as a special justice to the Arkansas Supreme Court, State Rep. Carol Dalby (R-Texarkana) grilled Smith and Deckert, a Louisianan, on the rights of the legislature to direct the jurisprudence of state courts.
“I have been a member of the judiciary in this state, and any person who has been a member of the judiciary raises their hand, takes an oath of office, to apply the laws of the state of the Arkansas and the laws of the United States, to uphold the Constitution. Can you cite any member of our judiciary who has not done that?”
“I cannot,” Smith said.
“Absolutely not,” Deckert said.
“And follow up please,” Dalby continued. “As I understand, there’s no cases, no Arkansas Supreme Court court cases, or [any] court cases, that have applied foreign law as opposed to Arkansas law, is that correct?”
“I don’t think I said that,” Smith said.
“Ok, do you know of any cases then?”
Smith named a parental kidnapping.
“It appears to me that this is a federal jurisdiction or a federal court question,” she said, and asked if Smith could agree with that.
“I don’t think I could agree with that fully.”
After committee examination Smith and Deckert stepped aside so that eight citizens— business and community leaders, a religious scholar and a rabbi—could plead for lawmakers to oppose the legislation.
Rnternational business lawyer Graham Catlett of Little Rock and Emanuel Alvarez, a liaison to Mexican consuls on immigration and commercial interests, made comments without bringing up Sharia or Islamic Law. Alvarez was concerned about what the legislation might mean for the legitimacy of legal immigration and travel documents; Catlett was concerned it might impact small and medium-sized exporters.
“Right now, many companies don’t enter into written contracts when they export, and so they automatically fall under the law of the United Nation’s Sale on Goods Treaty. So if this law were enacted, payments due under those agreements might not be enforceable in Arkansas, which would be a terrible result.”
But none on the committee spoke to or about these issues. The first and longest witnesses at the hearing were Hashim Ghori, a veterinarian who works in the state’s poultry industry, and Mahmoud Eldenawi, the religious scholar.
“Sharia mandates that Muslims respect the laws of the land,,” Ghori said. “Muslim Americans are subject to the same laws and constitution as any other American, as any one of you.”
Sharia, he said, is a religious code that differs among Muslims, differs presumably between he, an Iranian by birth, and Eldenawi, an Egyptian by birth, and is subject to the same lax interpretation as any religious code.
In perhaps the funniest exchange of the morning, state Rep. Doug House (R-North Little Rock) told Ghori to go back to the Islamic Center and tell his fellow congregants that there is no mention of Sharia in the legislation.
“Then what is the purpose of this law?” Ghori pleaded. “Is it judicial, legislative, criminal? A law you want to clarify in your own ways in your constitution? What is it that you’re really after, we want to know.”
“We’re trying to find that answer,” House said.
But after the meeting Smith and Deckert said they were prepared for a hearing that largely revolved around the American notion of Sharia Law, even if the legislation itself doesn’t mention it.
“I don’t think everybody knows what was in the bill. I don’t think everybody read it, and the reason I say that is because of the questions that were asked,” Deckert said afterward. “Was their stuff germaine? Often not. But it was what they cared about.”
A very specific bit of language repeated four times in the five-page bill got the attention of Bruce Hill, who said he represents the Arkansas Unitarian Universalist Justice Ministry. Among the protections for Arkansans that include due process and freedom of speech is “The right to marry, as ‘marriage’ is defined by Arkansas Constitution, Amendment 83.”
That amendment defines marriage as a union of a man and a woman. Presumably, the bill intends to recognize and protect only those marriages.
Outside the committee room, Smith dismissed the language as inconsequential, though it does reflect his personal beliefs, he said. The U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage the law of the land in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015.
In his telling of it, Smith said the origin of the bill begins with a very similar one introduced in 2013 by state Sen. Cecile Bledsoe (R-Rogers). It went nowhere, so in 2015 he introduced it. It passed the House but stalled in the Senate.
Two legislators on opposite ends of the political spectrum, Rep. Bob Ballinger (R-Hindsville) and Charles Blake (D-Little Rock) both spoke to just how little the legislation seems to do — Blake by way of impugning its necessity.
“It doesn’t do a whole lot and I hope it would actually never do anything,” Ballinger said.
Speaking of Ghori and Eldenawi, he said “I don’t know them, [but] I’m sure their version of Sharia Law is perfectly consistent with our constitutions both U.S. and state, and if that’s the case, they will be unaffected by this.”
But “You know, we have a [U.S.] Supreme Court justice who’s out there saying we should look more toward foreign laws than the U.S. Constitution. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she’s a sweet person, great friends with Scalia, not an evil person, but her view is we ought to look more at foreign laws than the U.S. Constitution.”
The bill will go before the entire House of Representatives and, if it passes, begin the same process in the Senate.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State News with Context.