Judge Orders Use of Islamic Law in Tampa Lawsuit over Mosque Leadership

William R. Levesque, St. Petersburg Times, March 22, 2011

The question of what law applies in any Florida courtroom usually comes down to two choices: federal or state.

But Hillsborough Circuit Judge Richard Nielsen is being attacked by conservative bloggers after he ruled in a lawsuit March 3 that, to resolve one crucial issue in the case, he will consult a different source.

“This case,” the judge wrote, “will proceed under Ecclesiastical Islamic Law.”

Nielsen said he will decide in a lawsuit against a local mosque, the Islamic Education Center of Tampa, whether the parties in the litigation properly followed the teachings of the Koran in obtaining an arbitration decision from an Islamic scholar.

The suit was filed by several men who say they were improperly ousted as trustees in 2002. The dispute may decide who controls $2.2 million the center received from the state after some of its land was used in a road project.

But attorney Paul Thanasides last week appealed Nielson’s decision with the 2nd District Court of Appeal, saying religion has no place in a secular court.

His client: the mosque.

“The mosque believes wholeheartedly in the Koran and its teachings,” Thanasides said Monday. “They certainly follow Islamic law in connection with their spiritual endeavors. But with respect to secular endeavors, they believe Florida law should apply in Florida courts.”

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The judge’s ruling comes as conservative lawmakers in Florida and around the nation are increasingly discussing legislation to ban or curtail the use of Islamic law, sometimes called sharia law, in U.S. courts.

Two Florida Republicans, Sen. Alan Hays and Rep. Larry Metz, this month announced legislation to prevent Islamic law, or any foreign legal code, from being applied in state courts.

The Tampa case is drawing attention from some who cite it as proof judges are improperly using foreign law.

“Florida has joined the march towards Sharia,” a writer on the Constitution Club blog said.

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Others are less certain, including Neelofer Syed, a Tampa immigration lawyer who is a guest lecturer on Islamic law at Stetson University College of Law.

The mosque, she said, is incorporated under the laws of Florida and so is ruled by state law.

“I think the judge’s ruling is flawed,” Syed said. “If you live in a country, you are subject to that country’s laws.”

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In an appeal of the judge’s decision, Thanasides wrote, “The First Amendment restricts courts’ authority to review, interpret and apply religious law because these actions interfere with a party’s right to choose, free from state involvement, the religious dogma it will follow.”

The judge said he would use Islamic law to decide only the legitimacy of arbitration.

“What law would we be applying (at) trial?” Thanasides asked.

“That trial would be civil law,” the judge said. “Florida law.”

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