Behind The Failed Effort To Ban Sharia Law In Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania’s statehouse CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
Pennsylvania’s statehouse CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

On November 18th 2011, Rep RoseMarie Swanger-(R Lebanon County) introduced House of Representative Bill 2029 with 43 Co-Sponsors — all but one a Republican — to the State Judiciary committee. Though she is now saying the bill is meant to uphold U.S. constitutional values and principles and not specifically anti-Sharia, the facts point to a situation where a public official tried — and failed — to use anti-Muslim rhetoric to win political points.

The bill in question is based on American Law for American Courts (ALAC) model legislation and Rep. Swanger is listed as a “Community Leader” on the American Public Policy Alliance Website. In her co-sponsorship memo of June 14, 2011 mentions Sharia law numerous times, especially the “nefarious nature” that it can have on the judiciary. Specifically Shariah Law is mentioned at least 6 times in her co-sponsoring memo and states, “Unfortunately, increasingly, foreign laws and legal doctrines — including and especially Shariah law — are finding their way into US court cases.”

Rep. Swanger stated in a discussion I had with her that the intent was not to single out “the Muslims” or any specific religion. Although after I made it clear to her that my interest in speaking with her was academic and I was not lobbying for the Muslim community, she still wondered if the “Muslim” opposition to the bill was gender based and she could not imagine how anyone would not want to outlaw things like “beating your wife” and “Female Genital Mutilation.”

Of interest is that HB2029 never moved out of the Judiciary Committee and no hearings were held. This occurred in spite of a large and growing Co-Sponsorship list -– over 45 with the lone Democrat removing her name — in a state with a relatively small Muslim population and with anti-Sharia bills becoming law in many states. Additionally Pennsylvania has a conservative Republican Governor and Republican majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Even though Pennsylvania increasingly votes blue in presidential elections, it is also the state that legendary Democratic strategist James Carville referred to as “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.” An anti-Sharia bill seemed to be a perfect fit and almost ready made for passage. Many in the Muslim and allied communities feared that it would soon become law. Not only did this not happen, but the anti-Sharia bill did not even have a hearing or move out of Committee. Representative Swanger blames “Muslim demonstrations” in Philadelphia for frightening her fellow Representatives.

In researching this, a few important events and issues stand out:

1. In Western Pennsylvania, Deborah Fidel, past director of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee led a very effective coalition against HB2029. Her high profile interfaith effort included creating a panel of Catholic, Jewish and Muslim scholars who discussed the effect that HB2029 would have on personal religious practices and freedoms. Deborah Fidel especially credits the organized Catholic Community since “Pittsburgh is a very Catholic town” in the successful opposition, including a City Council of Pittsburgh resolution condemning HB2029. The Muslim Community in Pittsburgh is very small and not well organized.

2. In Philadelphia, which has a large and better-organized Muslim Community, a similar interfaith effort was organized by the local chapter of the Council for American-Islamic Relations, CAIR. Amara Chaudhry the legal Director of CAIR produced a well-researched and informative 45 page brief that was sent to all members of the Judiciary Committee. She also put together a well-attended interfaith press conference. This press conference, which featured Rabbis, Pastors, ethnic leaders and Imams, received extensive coverage on local and regional media, including from Allentown, which is over 60 miles north of Philadelphia. The Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Relations Council, although not working with CAIR, sent letters to the Judiciary Committee condemning HB2019 and the Philadelphia Bar Association also came out in opposition. Additionally, the City Council of Philadelphia passed a unanimous Resolution condemning HB2029.

3. In Harrisburg, the state Capital witnessed an organized and effective lobby effort which included the Catholic Conference, ACLU, Philadelphia Bar Association and the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition. They jointly worked the halls of the House, met with senior Republican leadership and committee members and convinced them that this Bill should never see the light of day. No organized Muslim lobbying activity exists in Harrisburg.

The result of these very effective interfaith efforts led to no hearings or movement within the Judiciary committee. In fact, perhaps out of frustration, HB2029 was re-referred to the State Government Committee on September 25, 2012. Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R) chairs the State Government Committee and is perhaps the most radical right member of the House of Representatives. Although re-referred very late in the legislative schedule, Metcalfe stated that a hearing would be held on November 14, 2012. This ultimately was not held since elections were scheduled for November 6, 2012. Legislators left in late October and the House Leadership asked him to cancel the hearings, which he did on November 4.

HB2029 was reintroduced as HB2168 by Rep. Swanger on April 9, 2014 for the 2013–14 Legislative session, this time with only 12 co-sponsors. The co-sponsoring memo makes no mention of Sharia law. Based on discussions I have had with various members and lobbyists, this Bill is dead on arrival.

In spite of a small and, outside of Philadelphia, a poorly organized Muslim community, interfaith organizing and lobbying, especially by the organized Jewish and Catholic communities together with media coverage was effective in preventing HB2029 from moving out of committee. Unlike some other states, mostly in the South and Mid-West, which passed anti-Sharia laws, Pennsylvania has a long history of inter-faith cooperation with strong and well-organized Jewish and Catholic communities. This resulted in City Council Resolutions in the two largest Cities, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, media coverage and effective lobbying at the state Capitol.

Perhaps William Penn’s vision of religious tolerance codified in the Declaration of Rights of 1682 is still valid in Pennsylvania today, “All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect, or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent; no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishment or modes of worship.”