Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Bill banning Shariah law in Florida family cases passes Senate panel

Florida lawmakers are poised to pass a controversial law banning courts from using foreign law, after a split Senate committee signed off on the measure.

The bill (SB 58) would ban courts or other administrative authorities form using religious or foreign law in deciding matters related to family law, including divorce and child custody. The House approved a similar measure last year but it died on the Senate floor.

The Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee approved the bill by a 5-4 vote, with one Republican voting against it and one Democrat voting in favor, surprising opponents of the bill, who expected it to fail.

Critics, including the Florida Bar, the Anti-Defamation League, the ACLU of Florida and the National Council of Jewish Women, contend the bill would have a negative impact on Jewish divorces, called “gets,” and could trouble the state’s relationship with Israel. Under Jewish law, only a man can grant a divorce to a woman.

That violates Florida and federal constitutional protections, David Barkey, religious freedom counsel for the Florida Anti-Defamation League told the panel. And it would bar courts from recognizing any divorce settlements granted under Israeli or Jewish law, he said.

“This legislation … could undermine Florida’s strong reputation and track record as a center for trade with Israel and other nations” and “serve as an incentive for them to take their business elsewhere,” Barkey said.

And the bill could have a chilling effect on Israeli nationals and dual citizens already living in Florida, NCJW Vice President of Advocacy Linda Geller Schwartz, who lives in Boca Raton, said.

“The message being given to the Jewish population and other minorities is a very unwelcoming one,” she said.

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, the bill’s sponsor, drew fire from Islamic groups two weeks ago when he likened Shariah law to a “dreadful disease” requiring inoculation to protect Americans.

House sponsor Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, told the panel the bill (SB 58, HB 351) is a safeguard against having “offensive law invading our legal system.”

A federal court struck down an Oklahoma amendment banning courts from relying on Shariah law. Unlike the Oklahoma law, the Florida proposal does not mention Shariah law. A similar law went into effect in Kansas last year.

The bill would ban courts from basing a decision regarding family law cases on a foreign law that does not grant the parties the same constitutional rights and privileges guaranteed by the state or federal constitution. And it would ban courts from enforcing decisions, such as alimony or child custody, granted in foreign courts that are not the same as state law.

The measure does not apply to ecclesiastical matters or corporations, something Hays said is meant to protect churches and religious institutions.

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