OKLAHOMA -The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court's ruling that blocked the implementation of the "Save Our State" amendment. The amendment, approved by 70 percent of Oklahoma voters in 2010, barred "Islamic law" in the state, even though there was no movement to impose sharia law in Oklahoma.

Judge Scott M. Matheson wrote on behalf of the unanimous court, "Appellants do not identify any actual problem the challenged amendment seeks to solve. Indeed, they admitted at the preliminary injunction hearing 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 has resulted in concrete problems in Okalahoma." (Awad v. Ziriax).

Larson test a Gateway to Addressing Laws that Discriminate Between Religions

The 10th Circuit also applied the Larson test as a gateway to the Lemon test. While the Lemon test Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971) applied to "laws affording uniform benefit to all religions, and not to provisions…that discriminate among religions,"  in Larson v. Valente, 456 U.S. 228, 255 (1982), the Supreme Court ruled that if a law discriminated between religions, it could survive only if it is "closely fitted to the furtherance of any compelling interest asserted."

In the case of California Christian Univ. v. Weaver, 534 F.3d 1245 (10th Cir. 2008), the 10th Circuit had described Larson, "The First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion …. The State may not adopt programs or practices…which aid or oppose any religion….. This prohibition is absolute." Larson, 456 U.S. at 246.

Proponents of the Oklahoma amendment had argued that Larson was no longer good law because it is used infrequently, but the 10th Circuit ruled that the Supreme Court had never overturned it, and stated that this rarity "likely reflects that legislatures seldom pass laws that make ‘explicit and deliberate distinctions between different religious organizations' as contemplated in Larson."

In fact, the Supreme Court had referenced the rarity of this type of case in Church of the Lukimi Babalu Aye, Inc., v. City of Hileah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993)("The principle that government may not enact laws that suppress religious belief or practice is so well understood that few violations are recorded in our opinions.")

The Larson case facts were mild compared to the facts of  Oklahoma amendment case. In the Larson case, a Minnesota statute imposed certain registration and reporting requirements on religious organizations that solicited more than 50 percent of their funds from non-members. No specific religious group was identified. But the Oklahoma statute specifically targeted Islam, and was defined in these terms: "Sharia Law is Islamic Law. It is based on two principle sources, the Koran and the teachings of Mohammed." (SQ 755).

The Oklahoma amendment further instructed the courts to "uphold and adhere to … if necessary the law of another state of the United States provided the law of the other state does not include Sharia Law, in making judicial decisions." The law did not prohibit Oklahoma courts from upholding laws of any other religion. The Oklahoma amendment also included language that Oklahoma "courts shall not look to the legal precepts of other nations or cultures. Specifically, the courts shall not consider international law or Sharia law."

Because of the lack of Sharia law in Oklahoma, the Court ruled that the harm that the amendment would remedy was "speculative at best and cannot support a compelling interest." Further, the court said that there was no way to tell whether the amendment would solve any Sharia law problem since "one cannot try on a glove to see if it fits when the glove is missing."

The Court further found that Muneer Awad, a Muslim who had filed the case, would suffer irreparable injury without the injunction. The court applied on the principle that "[w]hen an alleged constitutional right is involved, most courts hold that no further showing of irreparable injury is necessary." Kikumara v. Hurley, 242 F.3d 950. The 10th Circuit also noted that although states can legislate in certain areas (including ballot initiatives), "these granted powers are always subject to the limitation that they may not be exercised in a way that violates other specific provisions of the Constitution."

The full decision is available here: http://www.ca10.uscourts.gov/opinions/10/10-6273.pdf

CONCLUSION: Certainly, if Islamic law had been imposed, it would be a violation of the Establishment Clause. But without that even being at issue, the Amendment became an excuse to marginalize a religious group.

 

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