The USCCB’s recent statement “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” which calls for resistance to growing threats to religious freedom, mentioned Islam once. Defending religious liberty, the bishops wrote, “is not an Orthodox, Mormon, or Muslim issue. It is an American issue.” The bishops’ case for the universality of their cause would have been more persuasive if, in their list of specific concerns, they had included examples of how compromised religious liberty is, in part, a “Muslim issue.” One phenomenon they might easily have mentioned is the rise of “anti-sharia” laws in the United States.
Currently more than a dozen states are considering legislation to ban courts from considering what these lawmakers rather simplistically characterize as “sharia law.” “Sharia” refers to a broad range of interpretations and applications of Islamic teachings and customs. American courts have traditionally allowed such religious understandings to have a place in arbitrating disputes in areas like marriage, divorce, and charitable giving. Under the guise of resisting jihadist interpretations of sharia, the backers of anti-sharia legislation would threaten this arrangement. Oklahoma, the first state to pass anti-sharia legislation, shielded non-Islamic faiths from the implications of the law by specifically targeting Islam in language that has already been ruled unconstitutional in two federal courts. Attempts to reword these laws to make their specifically anti-Muslim intent less obvious have served to clarify the threat they pose to all types of religious freedom. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) stood with Muslim groups in opposition to the law passed by the Florida House on March 1, describing the supposed threat of sharia law as “completely illusory” and warning that Florida’s legislation would threaten Jewish customs as well as Muslim ones.
The ADL is not alone among religious-freedom advocates in its concern over such laws and the conspiratorial fears of those who champion them. Leading voices from across the ideological spectrum, including some prominent supporters of the bishops’ emphatic statement, agree that anti-sharia laws represent a profound threat to religious freedom. For instance, in the same issue of First Things containing the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement on religious liberty that the bishops quote in their document, there is an article by Robert K. Vischer, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, titled “The Dangers of Anti-Sharia Laws” (March 2012). Interfering with American Muslims’ “meaningful religious liberty and meaningful access to the courts,” Vischer says, is “unjust to Muslims and sets a dangerous precedent for other religious groups.” Christians and Jews “should consider the way these laws not only misunderstand the faith of their Muslim fellow citizens but threaten their own religious liberty.” Furthermore, he argues, political support for anti-sharia laws “serves only to fan the flames of religious intolerance while nurturing public acceptance of the notion that the religious commitments of our citizens have no place in our courts.” Vischer noted the prominence of anti-sharia rhetoric in the GOP’s presidential race:
Newt Gingrich…has described sharia as “a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it.” Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann signed a pledge to reject “sharia Islam and all other anti-woman, anti–human rights forms of totalitarian control”…. Even Mitt Romney felt obliged to insist that “we’re not going to have [sharia] law applied in U.S. courts.”
Vischer and First Things are not the only supporters of the bishops’ statement who have expressed grave concerns about the anti-sharia-law agenda. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, arguably the organization most in line with the bishops’ objections to the HHS mandate, has been on the record for years in strong opposition to anti-sharia rhetoric and laws. In 2010, the fund’s Asma Uddin wrote that these laws reflected “political advantage-seeking and fear of Muslims” and were “infecting segments of the national political discourse, despite [their] inherent absurdity.”
Opposition to anti-sharia laws and demagoguery is a focus of both conservative and liberal watchdog groups. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has for years viewed these laws as a significant threat to the religious liberty of Muslims. Their May 2011 report “Nothing to Fear” provides the intellectual framework for understanding why the ACLU and conservative religious-freedom groups view anti-sharia laws as fundamental threats to the First Amendment. A reasonable case can be made that the threat of anti-sharia laws to religious liberty is no less critical than the HHS contraceptive mandate in the new health-care law, the recent Alabama immigration regulations, and the five other examples the bishops cite in their statement.
On the other hand, criticizing anti-sharia laws might have alienated a significant part of the coalition of religious conservatives that is backing the bishops’ campaign against the HHS mandate. For them, the threat of sharia is as real as the threat of secularism is to the bishops. We know these groups would have objected to any criticism of anti-sharia laws because they reacted with alarm when First Things published Vischer’s article. Author and “Jihad Watch” blogger Robert Spencer is a major figure in the religious right’s post-9/11 focus on Islam and a leading voice among those Christian conservatives who view the imposition of sharia law in the United States as a serious threat. Spencer wrote a blistering critique of Vischer’s article, calling it “plainly disingenuous” and an example of non-Muslims being complicit in “their own subjugation.” Spencer’s concerns are shared by many conservative Jews and Catholics, including David Yerushalmi, a Hasidic Jew the New York Times described as “the man behind the anti-sharia movement.” Richard Thompson, president of the conservative Thomas More Law Center (TMLC)—which he co-founded with Catholic entrepreneur Tom Monaghan, and which describes itself as “the Christian response to the ACLU”—has partnered with Spencer in past ventures. Most notably, Yerushalmi and Spencer played a major role in the TMLC’s 2008 lawsuit accusing the Obama administration of using the bailout of AIG to promote Islamic jihad.
The TMLC is a perfect illustration of how significant figures on the Catholic Right have fused concern about the HHS mandate with their prior concern about the threat of Islam and sharia law. The TMLC lists “confronting the threat of Islam” as one of five “key issues,” alongside “defending the religious freedom of Christians.” A statement on their website describes a Muslim conspiracy:
Radical Muslims and Islamic organizations in America take advantage of our legal system and are waging a “Stealth Jihad” within our borders. Their aim is to transform America into an Islamic nation. They have already infiltrated the highest levels of our government, the media, our military, both major political parties, public schools, universities, financial institutions, and the cultural elite.
Even before the bishops published “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” the TMLC was helping promote a nationwide protest movement called “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” instigated in response to the HHS mandate. Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Michael Byrnes spoke at the Detroit “Stand Up” rally on March 27—the same rally at which the TMLC’s Thompson, in a chilling speech, went as far as any public figure has gone toward threatening armed resistance to the HHS mandate. Noting the “sad irony” of Christian soldiers dying in Afghanistan and Iraq while “our own government is tearing up our constitution,” Thompson warned, “Washington doesn’t realize that Christians are born for combat. They are underestimating Christians.”
This sort of rhetoric is utterly opposed to the bishops’ efforts to protect the civil exercise of religious freedom and to defend the voice of religion in the public square. When it comes from those who have publicly joined the campaign against the HHS mandate, it threatens the bishops’ credibility. Denouncing anti-sharia laws and other attempts to disenfranchise and demonize Muslim Americans would have made “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty” stronger, and more convincing in its claim on the attention of all people of goodwill. It would also have more clearly distanced the bishops from those, like Thompson, who see not only a threat from secularism but also a threat from their Muslim neighbors.