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Overwrought in Oklahoma

Oklahoma is not OK. The passage of a state ballot measure last week that bans judges from considering international or Islamic law in their decisions is a symptom of a grave sickness in the heartland. It was an initiative inspired by paranoia, xenophobia and ignorance that should offend not only Muslims but anyone who believes in the principles enshrined by the U.S. Constitution.

Perhaps most mystifying is why Oklahomans felt a need to draft such a law to begin with. Muslims make up less than 1% of the state’s population, and no state judge has ever cited Sharia — a code of behavior passed down in the Koran by the prophet Muhammad — in a ruling. To the extent that the more than 70% of voters who approved the measure thought about their decision, they probably believed they were striking a blow for American values against the incursion of a foreign and hostile ideology. But what they were really attacking were American values.

There seems to be a lot of confusion, especially among the Christian right, about the meaning of the 1st Amendment’s provision that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” To put it simply: Judges are already forbidden by the 1st Amendment from applying Sharia to their decisions, yet by passing a law that sets aside Sharia for special treatment, voters probably violated the 1st Amendment.

One would be hard-pressed to find a legal scholar who thinks the Oklahoma measure will stand up to constitutional scrutiny. It was quickly blocked by a U.S. district court judge, who issued a temporary injunction preventing the state election board from certifying the initiative.

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Oklahoma lawmakers, who put State Question 755 on the ballot, found a cheap way to appeal to voters’ worst instincts by fanning deep-seated antipathy toward a tiny religious minority — one that poses no real threat to the state’s laws or way of life. And this kind of demagoguery isn’t confined to Oklahoma. It has helped fuel hysteria in response to mosque construction plans from New York to Temecula. For now, this is making life in this country tough for Muslims; who will the bigots go after next?


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