By Robert Boczkiewicz
DENVER (Reuters) - Lawyers for the state of Oklahoma urged a federal appeals court on Monday to reinstate a voter-passed state constitutional amendment barring Oklahoma judges from recognizing Islamic and international law.
Defenders of Oklahoma's "Save Our State Amendment," approved by 70 percent of state voters last year, say they want to prevent foreign laws in general, and Islamic Sharia law in particular, from overriding state or U.S. laws.
But foes of the Oklahoma measure have argued it stigmatizes Islam and its adherents and violates the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment prohibition against the government favoring one religion over another.
Sharia or Islamic law covers all aspects of Muslim life including religious obligations and financial dealings, and opponents of the ban say such a move could nullify wills or legal contracts between Muslims because they incorporate by reference specific elements of Islamic prophetic traditions.
Oklahoma is the only state to have passed a law explicitly banning consideration of Sharia by its courts, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. But the Religion News Service has reported moves afoot to pass similar legislation in more than 20 states.
A report this month showed that the percentage of Americans who believed American Muslims want to establish Sharia law in the United States grew by 7 points to 30 percent over the past eight months. The same report, by the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute, showed 88 percent of Americans acknowledged knowing little about Muslim beliefs.
A lawsuit challenging the Oklahoma measure, also called State Question 755, was brought by the ACLU on behalf of Muneer Awad, director of the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
A U.S. district judge in Oklahoma City, Vicki Miles-LaGrange, issued a court order last November barring the measure from taking effect while the case is under review, finding a likelihood that Awad would prevail on the merits.
The Oklahoma Elections Board then petitioned the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver to set aside the injunction, and a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit heard arguments from the two sides on Monday.
The panel gave no indication how it would rule, but at least one judge, Scott Matheson, asked why the measure was crafted to apply explicitly to just one religion.
"There's no mention of any other specific law," Matheson said in the hearing. "We just have Sharia law singled out."
Oklahoma Solicitor General Patrick Wyrick replied, "The intent here was to exclude Sharia law and international law."
Matheson asked, "Why is there any need to mention Sharia law," to which Wyrick answered: "To avoid confusion."
Asked to explain why the issue was ripe for judicial review before anyone could demonstrate any overt harm from it, ACLU attorney Micheal Salem said the measure, by its very enactment, "conveyed hostility" toward one religion.
Salem, arguing that the measure sought to impose the will of the majority over the rights of a minority, said upholding it would establish a precedent that "it would only take 50 percent plus one to ban the next religion."
The clerk of the court told Reuters it takes an average of three months for the 10th Circuit to render a decision in a case after hearing oral arguments.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)