How much religion should be in our laws?

Election year is a great time to invest in soap boxes. And this year is no different.

The soap boxes were stacked last week, you might say to Kingdom Come, in Lansing when dozens of people converged on the Capitol to urge lawmakers to take up House Bill 4769, which would keep courts from recognizing Sharia law (without ever actually mentioning Sharia law). The bill was introduced in June 2011, and has since not moved out of the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill would “limit the application and enforcement by a court, arbitrator, or administrative body of foreign laws that would impair constitutional rights; to provide for modification or voiding of certain contractual provisions or agreements that would result in a violation of constitutional rights; and to require a court, arbitrator, or administrative body to take certain actions to prevent violation of constitutional rights.”

Last week, I called the bill’s sponsor, Grandville Republican Rep. Dave Agema, to ask: Is this a thing now? I was looking for examples of when foreign laws have actually impacted cases in Michigan. I’m still waiting for that return phone call.

In one example coming from Michigan courts, the Michigan Court of Appeals in Tarikonda v. Pinjari upheld Michigan law, and rejected an Indian man’s claim that because he “divorced” his wife in the manner allowed in his home country: by stating three times “I divorce thee,” his divorce should be recognized in Michigan. But the trial court let foreign law sneak into Michigan courts and recognized the divorce.

Thomas M. Cooley Professor William Wagner offers some interesting insight in his May 2011 analysis here, in which he discusses the tension that many Christians feel as secular interests from the political left encroach on American jurisprudence, and at the same time religious interests from outside Judeo-Christian cultures also are moving in.

He calls the bill good legislation. While it may not be crucially needed right now, he said that allowing foreign influence and religious law to creep into American lawmaking and court decisions could slowly open the door for what most Americans would consider too much God in our law.

“The bill wouldn’t hurt anybody. It would only protect women, children and religious freedom,” he said.

Allowing some religious aspects of our culture into our laws and courts all depends on how it gets there, Wagner said. For example, he said that a bill that would prohibit physician-assisted suicide could be introduced in Michigan by a group of physicians who have a completely secular reason: It violates their professional ethics and erodes public opinion of their profession. And the bill sails through Congress and goes into law.

A group of Catholics in Indiana hear about it and go to their Congressman, a well-known Catholic. And they say that their religious beliefs tell them that all life is sacred, and would like this bill to be a law. The Congressman introduces an identical bill, but for a religious reason. It sails through and becomes a law. That’s still fine, said Wagner.

But elsewhere, a Muslim Congressman introduces the exact same bill, because it is consistent with his religious beliefs and in his view, laws of the government cannot conflict with his religion. In other words, his religion is his law. Even if it’s the exact same bill, that’s not OK, Wagner said.

It’s a tricky balance — how do our courts recognize one religious influence as part of American culture, but exclude another? And should they?

Tell us what you think. Is this really a thing that we ought to be worried about? Have our courts been overrun by some influence that we should try to quell? And if the bill passes and becomes law, how much religious philosophy already recognized in our laws and founders’ documents (the Bill of Rights, for example) would lose meaning?

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