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Constitutional Law 101: Federal Court Rules That Discrimination Against Muslims Violates the First Amendment

Heather L. Weaver,
Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief
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January 10, 2012

Condemning an entire faith and singling out its followers for disfavored and unequal treatment by the government violates the Constitution, it turns out. That principle might seem obvious to anyone who has read the Constitution, but the State of Oklahoma and its voters did not get the message, prompting a federal appeals court today to affirm a decision blocking the implementation of an anti-Islam constitutional amendment.

The Constitution’s promise of religious liberty extends to followers of all faiths, including Muslims. Thus, a federal appeals court ruled today that an Oklahoma law that discriminates against Muslims appearing before state courts likely violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The court upheld a district court ruling preventing the amendment from taking effect. The ACLU and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (“CAIR”) represent the plaintiff in the case, Muneer Awad (pictured), the executive director of CAIR’s Oklahoma chapter.

Oklahoma’s proposed “Save Our State Amendment” would have changed the state constitution to bar state courts from considering so-called “Sharia Law” in making decisions. The amendment defined “Sharia Law” broadly as Islamic law based on the Koran and the teachings of Mohammed. If implemented, the amendment would have rendered Oklahoma’s Muslims second-class citizens before the state courts. For example, it could have prevented courts from probating a will that incorporated or even mentioned the religious beliefs of the deceased. It also could have inhibited Muslims from forming enforceable contracts in accordance with their religious beliefs, even while those of other faiths could. And it would have effectively denied Muslims the ability to bring suit in state court to remedy violations of their religious freedom rights.

In its ruling, the appeals court flatly rejected the State’s claim that the law was necessary to protect against the courts’ improper application of Sharia law. The court affirmed that the so-called “Sharia threat” identified by the State is a myth. The court wrote: “Appellants do not identify any actual problem the challenged amendment seeks to solve. Indeed, they admitted…that they did not know of even a single instance where an Oklahoma court had applied Sharia law or used the legal precepts of other nations or cultures, let alone that such applications or uses had resulted in concrete problems in Oklahoma.”

In addition to blatantly discriminating against Muslims, the amendment also would have banned state courts from applying or considering “international law.” Not only would this have violated the Constitution, but it also would have undermined courts’ abilities to interpret laws and treaties relating global business issues and international human rights. And it could have blocked state courts from recognizing or ruling on issues relating to international marriages and adoptions.

The Oklahoma law was an early entrant in the race by a number of state officials to ban Sharia law and international law in response to a loathsome wave of anti-Muslim sentiment that has swept the country in the last few years, including myriad attacks on Muslim houses of worship, discrimination against Muslim women, and the improper targeting of Muslims in the national security context. The ACLU continues to work tirelessly to protect the rights of Muslims in all of these areas.

The court’s decision today represents a significant victory against anti-Muslim discrimination and bigotry and sends the message that the religious liberty of Muslims, like Americans of all faiths, may not be put up for a vote.

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