COLUMBIA — A group of senators spent more than an hour this week discussing the pros and cons of a bill that would prevent the enforcement of foreign law in South Carolina, including sharia, or Islamic law.
But most of their time was spent debating a hypothetical marriage between an American woman and a Pakistani man and how American courts would rule should that couple divorce.
None of the senators nor Kevin A. Hall, a Columbia attorney who testified in support of the bill, were aware of any examples in South Carolina where courts upheld sharia law over the U.S. Constitution.
The bill was introduced in January by Sen. Michael Fair, R-Greenville, with supporters saying the legislature needs to clarify that foreign laws and religious or cultural traditions cannot trump U.S. laws.
While the bill does not specifically mention sharia law, the focus of Wednesday's debate indicates it is the primary target. Sharia law is followed by Islamic countries, which base their rules and cultural traditions on their religious beliefs. It governs everything from divorce and child custody to crime and punishment.
Several other states are considering similar legislation, including Tennessee, Florida and Alabama.
"We do things because we feel there's a need before the need is demonstrated," said Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, a member of the panel considering the bill. "Ambiguity is not how we should legislate and leave the decisions up to the courts."
Hall introduced an amendment that would alter the original bill's potential impact on business deals that involve foreign law. And while Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, made a motion to adopt the amendment, the subcommittee adjourned without voting on it.
Howard Stravitz, a USC law professor who specializes in jurisdictional issues, testified that the bill was ill-conceived and gave four reasons why it should not be approved by the panel. The bill would have an adverse effect on businesses, would violate First Amendment rights for freedom of religion and would open the state to a civil lawsuit, which would create unnecessary expenses, he said.
Stravitz, who also said there are no examples of sharia law causing problems in South Carolina, discussed three cases in which federal judges decided that sharia law was not applicable in family court disputes.
"When constitutional rights are at stake our courts all over the country do very well at applying those rights," Stravitz said.
Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, asked a staff attorney to send a letter to all of South Carolina's family court judges to ask if they ever have faced the question of whether sharia law would take precedence over U.S. statutes when deciding family court issues such as divorce and child custody.
The judges' responses will be reviewed during the next subcommittee meeting although it has not been scheduled.