By Susan Hogan
State Sen. Dave Thompson, a Lakeville Republican, introduced a bill this week only to withdraw it a few hours later. In between, area Muslim leaders called a press conference in which they, along with key Christian and Jewish leaders, denounced the bill for what it was: veiled anti-Muslim bigotry.
“This bill is a symptom of the fear that has been drummed up about the religious tradition of Islam,” said Gadeir Abbas, a Washington, D.C., staff attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations(CAIR.) The group has challenged anti-sharia efforts around the country, and was prepared to do so in Minnesota, home to an estimated 150,000 Muslims.
CAIR’s Minnesota chapter hosted the Monday event, demonstrating its ability to sway public policy by quickly galvanizing the Twin Cities’ interfaith leaders against religious bigotry.
“This bill is an attack on religious freedom and an attempt to marginalize Muslims in Minnesota,” said Munazza Humayun, the group’s civil rights director.
Whether wittingly or not, Thompson found himself caught up in the anti-Muslim antics of David Yerushalmi, a nationally known anti-Muslim activist. He was the force behind the deluge of bills introduced in more than 20 states last year opposing Islamic religious law known as sharia, which guides Muslim behavior, actions and spiritual life.
Yerushalmi, an attorney, has a history of making “controversial statements about race, immigration and Islam,” according to the New York Times. “Despite his lack of formal training in Islamic law, [he] has come to exercise a striking influence over American public discourse about sharia.”
That influence, sadly, is heard in the anti-sharia, anti-Muslim rhetoric of GOP presidential candidates.
After Oklahoma voters passed a ban on sharia law last year, courts ruled the measure violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That clause prevents the government from establishing religion, or favoring one religion over another.
Yerushalmi took note and redrafted his bill template using language that appeared to be religiously neutral, though he was clearly targeting Muslims. Instead of mentioning sharia law, his template calls on banning the use of foreign laws in U.S. Courts. That was wording used in Thompson’s bill, too.
That language, however, had unseen consequences on other religions, too. Catholics adhere to the Code of Canon Law approved by the Vatican. Jewish law dates back thousands of years. Many religions have ecclesiastical courts that deal with contractual matters, such as marriages, divorces and wills.
“It could impinge on the religious freedoms we already have,” said the Rev. Thomas Duke of the St. Paul Interfaith Network.
Rabbi Amy Eilberg noted several negative implications of the bill for Jews, including those keeping kosher.
“Everything that Jews eat is certified by rabbinic authorities,” she said. “Would that now become against the law?”
It’s unclear why Thompson backed a discriminatory bill in the first place. Or why he abruptly changed his mind about the matter.
In a phone message to me, he said: “It was not my intent to introduce a bill that targeted any single religious group.”
Susan Hogan is a Star Tribune editorial writer.