State seeks to bar foreign law from courts

Posted: Friday, March 18, 2011

JUNEAU — An Alaskan lawmaker hopes to guard against Islamic Sharia law by prohibiting state courts from honoring foreign law that violates Alaskan or U.S. constitutional rights.

Though the bill’s language does not specifically target Sharia, Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, said the legislation is a reaction to what he sees as the growing use of international law codes in courts that have robbed people of their constitutional rights.

In a hearing before the House State Affairs Committee, Gatto’s chief of staff Karen Sawyer said Sharia is an example of the type of transnational law that has appeared in family law, divorce and child custody cases nationally, though she knows of instances of it appearing in Alaska courts.

“Sharia is clearly offensive to the U.S. Constitution,” Sawyer said. “It is the foremost foreign law that is impacting our legal system.”

Sawyer added that countries following Sharia law do not allow freedom of religion or equal rights to women.

Gatto called the law a preventative measure necessitated by the religious beliefs of recent immigrants.

“As a kid, we had Italian neighborhoods, Irish neighborhoods ... but they didn’t impose their own laws,” Gatto said. “When these neighborhoods are occupied by people from the Middle East, they do establish their own laws.”

Sharia law is a set of Islamic principles and religious interpretations that have been adopted into the laws of certain countries, mostly in the Middle East.

The Alaska proposal is based on the American Laws for American Courts act, which has been proposed in several states and versions of which have been enacted in Tennessee and Louisiana, said David Yerushalmi, an Arizona-based attorney who supports the legislation.

In testimony before the committee, Yerushalmi said the law would protect people who are forced to litigate in any country with laws counter to U.S. constitutional protections, not just countries practicing Sharia law.

“Today, we are far more likely than ever before to have foreign laws in American courts,” said Yerushalmi. “There are plenty of occasions in which foreign law informs what Alaskan law could be.”

Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the bill was an unnecessary overreach, and adequate protections for religious freedom in court already exist.

“It’s a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist,” Mittman said.

While Committee chair and bill co-sponsor Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, said he hoped to move the bill out of committee after its first hearing, concerns from lawmakers on how the bill would affect agreements with Alaska Native tribes or neighboring countries led to the bill being held over for further consideration.



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