Separation of Church and State

Protecting America From Religious Zealots

Conservatives are looking in the wrong place.


The number of judges who have rammed Sharia law down the throats of the American people is roughly equal to the number of legs on a snake. But that hasn't kept conservatives around the country from passing, or trying to pass, measures meant to stop it from happening. Eight states have banned Sharia law or "foreign law," the common euphemism. A measure to do so was vetoed in Missouri and the courts struck down another passed in Oklahoma. As of this time last year, 34 states had considered such measures.

Lately the Trump campaign has gotten out in front of the parade. The Donald has said he would bar entry to any foreigner who thinks "Sharia law should supplant American law," and one of his advisers, retired general Michael Flynn, has claimed that some states are already having to confront the imposition of Sharia law. Trump spokesman Katrina Pierson accused Gold Star father Khizr Khan of being a "strong proponent of Sharia law." Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump backer, has suggested that anyone who believes in Sharia should be deported.

(In this, as in so much else, Trump has been less than consistent. A few years ago he said nice things about Sharia in Saudi Arabia because men there "have the authority to divorce their wives without going to the courts.")

Yet while Islamic law is not exactly sweeping across the country, you can understand why some conservatives worry that it might. Though they miss the nuances of Sharia's meaning, they correctly point out that Islam as practiced in some countries is a brutal ideology that executes people for committing homosexual acts, cruelly oppresses women, punishes theft with barbaric amputations, and more.

And even more moderate forms of Islamic rule in the U.S. would be unwelcome, simply because a great many Americans do not subscribe to the Islamic faith, and the First Amendment protects their right not to submit to it. As Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, said when North Carolina lawmakers passed an anti-Sharia measure, "No one has a problem with Muslims or anyone else living peaceably in America. But on U.S. soil, we must all embrace the freedoms and responsibilities assigned us via the Constitution."

Amen to that.

Hence conservatives should be as pleased as everyone else by the recent suspension imposed on Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore. Moore had instructed that state's justices to disregard the Supreme Court's decision on gay marriage and a federal judge's decision striking down Alabama's ban on same-sex unions. He said the state's judges had a "ministerial duty" not to approve marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples. The suspension lasts until the end of Moore's current term, and he is not eligible for another one.

This isn't Moore's first brush with a higher law. Back in 2003 he was removed from office for disobeying a federal court's order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the Supreme Court building. In that case, as in this one, the vote on the nine-member Court of the Judiciary was unanimous.

Moore isn't the only public official who thinks secular law should bow down before his god. Former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has said America's "civil laws have to comport with a higher law: God's law." Another former GOP candidate, Mike Huckabee, has said Americans need to "amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than trying to change God's standards." Ted Cruz's wife, Heidi, characterized her husband as "uniquely qualified to deliver" a "combination of law and religion." Cruz ratified the sentiment by launching his candidacy at Liberty University with a speech heavy in religious overtones.

And then there was Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who famously refused to issue marriage licenses for gay couples because of her religious scruples. For that, she earned the "Cost of Discipleship" award from the Value Voters summit and comparisons to civil rights heroine Rosa Parks.

Davis and Moore did precisely what proponents of anti-Sharia statutes claim to be alarmed about: They set aside "the freedoms and responsibilities assigned us via the Constitution" in favor of sectarian religious beliefs.

It's worth noting that there are numerous Muslim office-holders in the U.S., including two members of Congress and a majority of the members of the Hamtramck, Mich., city council. Yet no Muslim public official has set his or her religious beliefs above the civil law. Moore and Davis did — and in some quarters, they became folk heroes for it.

So conservatives are right: The U.S. does face a very real danger that religious fundamentalism could undermine the principles of American constitutional governance. They're just looking for the threat in the wrong place.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.