Topeka, USA - A bill designed to prevent Kansas courts or government agencies from making decisions based on Islamic or other foreign legal codes has cleared the state Legislature after a contentious debate about whether the measure upholds American values or appeals to prejudice against Muslims.
The Senate approved the bill Friday on a 33-3 vote. The House had approved it, 120-0, earlier in the week. The measure goes next to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, who hasn't said whether he'll sign or veto the measure.
The measure doesn't specifically mention Shariah law, which broadly refers to codes within the Islamic legal system. Instead, it says that courts, administrative agencies or state tribunals can't base rulings on any foreign law or legal system that would not grant the parties the same rights guaranteed by state and U.S. constitutions.
But several supporters specifically cited the potential use of Shariah law in Kansas as their concern. Though there are no known cases in which a Kansas judge has based a ruling on Islamic law, supporters of the bill cited a pending case in Sedgwick County in which a man seeking to divorce his wife has asked for property to be divided under a marriage contract in line with Shariah law.
The bill's supporters said it simply ensures that legal decisions will protect long-cherished liberties, such as freedom of speech and religion and the right to equal treatment under the law. Sen. Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said a vote for the legislation is a vote to protect women.
"In this great country of ours and in the state of Kansas, women have equal rights," Wagle said during the Senate's debate. "They stone women to death in countries that have Shariah law."
The bill passed both chambers by wide margins because even some legislators who were skeptical of it believed it was broad and bland enough that it didn't represent a specific political attack on Muslims.
"We don't have any intolerance in this bill. Nobody's stripped of their freedom of religion," said Sen. Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican. "This is talking about the law — American law, American courts."
But several senators noted that supporters of the bill have singled out Shariah law in talking about it.
"This bill will put Kansas in a light that says we are intolerant of any other faith," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Tim Owens, an Overland Park Republican who voted against the bill. "I would not be able to look at myself in the mirror in the morning if I didn't stand up and say I don't want to be that kind of person and I don't want to be in a community or a state that is that way."
Both the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the National Conference of State Legislatures say anti-Shariah proposals have been considered in 20 states, including Kansas. Oklahoma voters approved a ballot initiative in 2010 that specifically mentioned Shariah law, but both a federal judge and a federal appeals court blocked it.
"It is an effort to demonize Islam," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Washington-based council. "As Muslims are seen participating in a positive way in society, that really irritates some people."
In Kansas, 45 House members, led by Rep. Peggy Mast, an Emporia Republican sponsored a bill aimed at Shariah law last year. The House approved it overwhelmingly, but it stalled in the Senate; this year, the House pushed another version, and pressure built on senators.
Mast had a news conference Thursday to highlight the Sedgwick County case, in which Hussein Hamdeh, a Wichita State University physics professor, filed for a divorce in November 2010 from his wife, Hala.
Their Islamic marriage contract, made in Lebanon, promised her a $5,000 payment should they split. He argued that the contract settled property issues, while Islamic law limited spousal maintenance payments to her to three months. Her attorney said in a court document that following Islamic law would leave her "destitute."
Hussein Hamdeh's attorney declined to comment because the case is pending. Hala Hamdeh's attorney did not return a telephone message seeking comment.
Sen. Garrett Love, a Montezuma Republican, said even if no Kansas court has yet based a decision on foreign legal codes, "That doesn't mean we shouldn't still protect Kansans from those foreign laws being used in the future — a future that really may not be that far away."
But several senators questioned whether the legislation is necessary, arguing Kansas judges and officials already must adhere to the U.S. and state constitutions. Hooper derided it as "an anti-unicorn" bill.
"All it does is increase hostility toward Islam and suspicion of Muslims," Hooper said.