Legislation aimed at banning Shariah, or Islamic law, and other foreign laws from Florida courts barely survived a key test in a state Senate committee on Monday after opponents berated it as a solution to a "phantom menace."
Opponents warned the bill would hurt the state's Jewish population by banning Florida courts from recognizing divorces granted in Israel to Jewish couples, as well as such related agreements as alimony or child custody.
"So this legislation would serve as a barrier to remarriage in Florida for any Jewish person who divorced in Israel," said David Barkey, representing the Anti-Defamation League.
Republican Sen. Alan Hays, the bill's sponsor, said the intent is to clearly state that foreign laws cannot be applied in family court proceedings if doing so would violate a person's rights guaranteed under the U.S. and Florida constitutions. People moving to this country "should expect that American laws will govern their disputes," he said.
"The laws in many countries do not even come close to protecting what we often take for granted — our fundamental constitutional rights," Hays said.
The bill (SB 58) cleared the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee on a 5-4 vote after long and spirited public testimony from supporters and opponents.
The measure is aimed at divorce and child custody cases and does not mention Shariah specifically.
At least six states have laws similar to Hays' bill, according to Corey Saylor, legislative director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. His group sued in one of those states, Oklahoma, and that law was suspended, he said recently. Several Muslims spoke against the bill at a previous Senate committee hearing.
On Monday, the bill also was opposed by civil liberties and legal groups that said the legislation is unnecessary.
There are no reported cases in which a Florida court applied foreign law. Opponents cited decisions spanning decades in which courts actually refused to apply foreign laws in Florida.
Christopher Rumbold, representing the Family Law Section of the Florida Bar, called it a "phantom menace." Ronald Bilbao of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida said the bill is "a solution in search of a problem."
The bill's supporters promote it as a preemptive move to avoid entanglements of foreign laws in Florida courts.
State Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, who is sponsoring a companion House bill, said there have been cases in other states in which courts applied foreign law.
"And there are, I think, more coming because of the fact that we are becoming more of an international economy," he told the Senate committee.
Afterward, Hays said he was unconcerned by the close committee vote.
"We won," he said. "It's not a matter of 'can I amass an overwhelming majority of votes' at all."