Quraishi-Landes on What American Judges Do with Islamic Family Law in Their Courtrooms

Asifa Quraishi-Landes (U. of Wisconsin Law School) has posted Rumors of the Sharia Threat Are Greatly Exaggerated: What American Judges Really Do with Islamic Family Law in Their Courtrooms. The abstract follows.

American rule of law has always considered issues of accommodations of religious minorities seeking to follow rules that differ from American secular legal norms. In other words, Sharia is by no means the first religious law to be presented in American courts. Two centuries of case law involving religious-based requests from American Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Native Americans, and others has resulted in several established policies and practices that American judges use to adjudicate requests for consideration of religious law. In short, requests for consideration of religious law are balanced with constitutional and legislative principles, using judicial tools such as comity, public policy, and unconscionability. Because many Americans are unaware of this established practice, the anti-Sharia campaign has been able to create a concern that judicial consideration of Sharia-based claims from Muslim American litigants is compromising American law and values. The case law, however, shows a different picture. Judicial treatment of Sharia requests is not threatening the American rule of law, it is an illustration of it. As with requests from other American religious groups, sometimes Sharia requests win, and sometimes they don’t. Reasonable minds differ over whether the courts get it right each time. But in every case, the job of the judge is a careful balancing of rights against each other, not an automatic trumping of religious practice by secular law or vice versa.

The campaign to ban Sharia in the United States appears to be directed at two different alleged threats: (1) that Sharia will take over American law, and (2) that judicial accommodation of Muslim religious practices is eroding our secular rule of law. The first is a non-issue: there is no real chance that Sharia will replace American law or our Constitution. But the second is worth talking about. It asks a question crucial to the nature of our secular constitutional democracy: Can we legally accommodate a diversity of religious legal practices among our citizens and, if so, with what limits? I will address one aspect of this question by summarizing in Part II how Islamic family law is currently accommodated in American courtrooms today and discussing in Part III why this does not threaten women’s rights or our American rule of law. In Part IV, I consider the global and domestic implications of Muslim American tribunals serving the dispute resolution needs of American Muslims. Part V concludes.

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