By Kevin Murphy
KANSAS CITY, Kansas (Reuters) - Kansas lawmakers have passed legislation intended to prevent the state courts or agencies from using Islamic or other non-U.S. laws in making decisions, a measure critics have blasted as an embarrassment to the state.
The legislation, which passed 33-3 in the state Senate on Friday and 120-0 previously in the House, is widely known in Kansas as the "Sharia bill," because the perceived goal of supporters is to keep Islamic code from being recognized in Kansas.
The bill was sent to Republican Governor Sam Brownback, who has not indicated whether he will sign it.
In interviews on Saturday, a supporter of the bill said it reassured foreigners in Kansas that state laws and the U.S. Constitution will protect them. But an opponent said the bill's real purpose is to hold Islam out for ridicule.
Kansas Representative Peggy Mast, a lead sponsor of the bill for the past two years, said the goal was to make sure there was no confusion that American laws prevailed on American soil.
Mast said research showed more than 50 cases around the United States where courts or government agencies took laws from Sharia or other legal systems into account in decision-making.
Commonly, they involved divorce, child custody, property division or other cases where the woman was treated unfairly, Mast said.
"I want people of other cultures, when they come to the United States, to know the freedoms they have in regard to women's and children's rights," said Mast, a Republican. "An important part of this bill would be to educate them."
State Senator Tim Owens, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said there was no need for legislation reaffirming American laws that already exist. All the proposed legislation does, he said, was target one particular group - Muslims - for discrimination.
"It's based on fear, it's based on intolerance and it is not based on understanding of the Constitution," said Owens, a Republican, who said the measure is an embarrassment to Kansas.
"People will ask, 'How narrow has that state become?'" Owens said. "How unwelcoming is this state?"
He said non-U.S. companies may be unwilling to do business in a state whose residents object to "anything different than what they think is appropriate."
Roughly 20 states have considered legislation similar to what has passed in Kansas, said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington. Some state legislatures, including Kansas, have passed laws that do not mention Sharia by name, he said.
Hooper said there was a movement by conservative-leaning state legislatures to introduce anti-Islam bills that have no legal foundation.
"Really, the goal seems to be (to demonize) Islam and (to marginalize) American Muslims," Hooper said. "Some (states) have passed these watered-down bills and declared a great victory. It's utter nonsense, but if your goal is to promote intolerance, I guess you won."
After Oklahoma voters approved a law in 2010 barring state judges from considering Sharia law specifically in making decisions, federal courts granted an injunction preventing the law from taking effect.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver upheld the injunction, ruling the law unfairly discriminated against a particular religion.
Sharia, or Islamic law, covers all aspects of Muslim life including religious obligations and financial dealings, and opponents of state bans say they could nullify wills or legal contracts between Muslims.
A report earlier this year showed that nearly a third of Americans believed American Muslims want to establish Sharia law in the United States.
The same report, by the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute, showed 88 percent of Americans acknowledged knowing little about Muslim beliefs.
(Editing By Andrew Stern and Todd Eastham)