Florida Anti-Sharia Legislation May Outlaw Orthodox Jewish Divorces

A Florida Senate panel’s hurried decision last week to pass a measure banning the use of Sharia law may, in practice, serve to prevent Orthodox Jewish couples from using Jewish religious courts to arbitrate their divorces.

The bill, the Application of Foreign Law in Certain Cases, is likely to pass the Florida Senate and, according to The Jewish Daily Foward’s Paul Berger, Florida Governor Rick Scott is expected to sign the bill into law.

The language of the bill is largely modeled after a wave of legislation targeting Sharia, traditional Islamic law, that has swept the country in recent years as part of an organized Islamophobia campaign, detailed in the Center for American Progress’s report Fear Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network In America. But the Florida bill — styled on model legislation drafted by David Yerushalmi, an Orthodox Jew who lives in New York — may have the unintended consequence of severely limiting the ability of Orthodox Jews to employ arbitration from Jewish religious courts in divorces.

The Florida bill states that arbitration is unenforceable if a tribunal bases its ruling on a “foreign law, legal code or system” that does not give people the same rights as Florida or U.S. Constitutions. Speaking to The Forward, Anti-Defamation League attorney David Barkey warns that the bill will affect Jews seeking divorces in accordance with rabbinical courts.

Barkey explains that because only a man can grant his wife a Jewish divorce, rabbinical courts could be seen as violating state and federal equal protection principles. “Any abritration or ruling based on such a law is, per se, invalid,” said Barkey. Orthodox couples frequently arbitrate divorces in accordance with rabbincal courts and, after agreeing to the terms of their divorce, petition a civil court to make the ruling a binding judgement.

Islamic and Jewish groups, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, challenge that the bill targets Islam, but the bill’s sponsors insist that’s not true. Both the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization Agudath Israel of America have vowed to fight the bill.

“The notion that secular judges are being asked to decide whether religious law does or does not conform with ‘fundamental liberties’ is an intrusion on religious freedom and could be a dangerous precedent for more far-ranging efforts in the future that might well impact our community,” warned Agudath’s vice president, Rabbi David Zwiebel.

The American Jewish Committee’s general counsel, Marc Stern, slammed the bill as “all smoke and mirrors” in an interview with The Forward. “It’s a trap for the unwary and nothing more. But I know it will be seen as another great victory in suppressing extremist Islam,” said Stern. “It’s nothing of the sort.”