Muslims complain they are frivolous bills meant to spread fears and sow suspicion of their religion in a nation divided.
But supporters of state proposals to prevent Islamic code from being used in American courts argue they aren’t overtly anti-Muslim and are needed to safeguard constitutional rights for average Americans.
The bills, variations of which have been around for years, don’t specifically seek to ban Islamic law, known as Shariah, even though some lawmakers concede that’s their intent.
Instead, the proposals broadly call for banning the application of any foreign law, legal code or legal system that doesn’t grant the same rights and privileges as the state or U.S. constitutions.
“I believe very strongly in the values of America to allow for religious freedom,” said Connecticut state Rep. Robert Sampson, a Republican sponsor of a bill. “I just don’t want our court system to start using what is religious law from other countries to make decisions.”
Muslim leaders say the bills are among a range of proposals and decisions at all levels of government that they’re gearing up to fight this year, from President Donald Trump’s travel ban to local planning and zoning rulings against mosque projects.
“These are thinly veiled attempts to alienate Muslims in America,” said Hazem Bata of the Islamic Society of North America, based in Indiana.
The bills have been introduced in at least 13 states, a number that will likely grow as the legislative year progresses, said Jonathan Griffin, of the National Conference of State Legislatures. While many of this year’s bills likely won’t become law, they’re gaining traction early in Montana and Arkansas, where the legislatures are poised to approve bills this month.
Supporters point to a 2014 report by the Center for Security Policy, a conservative think tank whose critics deride as anti-Muslim, that cites nearly 150 cases in which it says Shariah played a role.
The cases, some of which date to the late 1970s, mostly involve divorce, child custody and other family law proceedings where the plaintiff or defendants invoked Islamic laws and customs to make their case.
Supporters also stress the proposals would affect all religious codes and foreign laws equally.
If parts of Jewish, Christian or other laws ran counter to fundamental constitutional rights, they too would not be applicable in U.S. courts, said Montana state Sen. Keith Regier, a Republican.
But opponents maintain the bills as proposed don’t serve a practical purpose.
“The U.S. legal code already states that American courts can only adhere to American laws,” said John Robbins, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “It’s a stupid solution to a nonexistent problem.”