(Photo: SXC.)

By Howard Goodman
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

UPDATE 3-13-2012:  The Sharia law bill died on the floor of the state Senate just before the end of the the legislative session.

As Florida’s legislative session for 2012 rushes to a close Friday in a blizzard of unfinished business, it will be fascinating to see what happens with the bill to ban Sharia law from the state’s courts.

The measure, called Application of Foreign Law in Certain Cases, was already approved by the House, 92-24, and seems fast-tracked in the Senate. Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign the anti-Islamic legislation, which would become law immediately.

Meant to oppose a supposed threat to America’s judicial system — and by extension, America’s very way of life — the bill is one of about 20 similar ones working their ways through state legislatures. They’re based, almost word for word, on a model written by anti-Islamic activist David Yerushalmi, of Brooklyn.

Yerushalmi, along with the better-known conservative activists Frank Gaffney and Daniel Pipes, is in the forefront of a nationwide crusade promoting “a deeply mistaken portrayal of Islam … as an inherently violent ideology that seeks domination over the United States and all non-Muslims,”  as described by the liberal Center for American Progress.

The bill may trigger an ironic side-effect: It could prevent Orthodox Jewish groups from using religious courts to arbitrate their divorces.

The Jewish Daily Forward, a newspaper published in New York, writes:

The bill’s supporters acknowledge that their proposal is aimed at Muslims. But David Barkey, an Anti-Defamation League attorney specializing in church-state issues, said that the bill will affect Jews. Because only a man can grant his wife a Jewish divorce, or get, Barkey said, a beit din —singlular for batei din — may be seen as violating state and federal equal protection principles, which bar discrimination based on gender.

“Any arbitration or ruling based on such a law is, per se, invalid,” Barkey said.

But Yerushalmi said that courts would not apply the bill to arbitration rulings by batei din because these bodies do nothing to violate constitutional principles.

More than 2,000 Orthodox families live in Florida, according to Agudath Israel of America, an ultra-Orthodox umbrella group.

Yerushalmi is himself an Orthodox Jew.

Shariah is the moral code and religious law of Islam. Organizations such as Gaffney’s “Center for Security Policy” and political candidates such as Newt Gingrich and Michelle Bachmann have repeatedly hammered the notion that gullible or spineless American judges are bowing to Islamic court rulings as part of an insidious attempt by radical Muslims to take over our institutions.

But where’s the evidence to support these fevered imaginings? Last year, Gaffney’s group published a 635-page study designed to prove that Shariah’s impact on American court cases is widespread. It listed “50 significant cases” in which “Shariah law has entered into state court decisions, in conflict with the Constitution and state public policy.”

Yet in what the study called the “top 20” of those cases, 18 concerned foreign-born people. Fourteen dealt with divorces or child custody disputes. In eight of the 20 cases, appellate courts overturned lower courts that had cited religious-court rulings in their findings. In four more cases, the courts flat-out refused to apply Islamic law. Only six of the top 20 cases showed U.S. courts clearly backing an Islamic court’s ruling.

One “top” case turned out to be that of a U.S. court which allowed Saudi-based branches of Mobil and Exxon to sue a Saudi company under Saudi law — a law that happens to be based on Shariah.

In other words, we’re dealing with, at best, a handful of dubious court decisions. You might even call them bad decisions. But that’s not a crisis. That’s the legal system. What courtroom is ever free of the occasional bad decision?

Almost all the cases involve Muslim people who have moved here from Muslim nations, and who are trying to reconcile their customs, agreements and laws with American customs, traditions and laws. None of them suggests an effort to impose their religious precepts on anyone else.

This anti-Shariah movement has all the earmarks of a manufactured crisis.

The bill does have opponents. As the Miami Herald wrote a couple of days ago, invoking a million old jokes, “an imam, a rabbi and a pastor walked into Senate President Mike Haridopolos’ office Wednesday with two demands: Withdraw the foreign law bill they say targets Muslims, and investigate who is behind anti-Muslim booklets and flyers circulating the Senate.”

The clerics only got as far as meeting with an aide. Haridopolos was not available. Last week, he said he favors the bill because he thinks it supports the U.S. Constitution.