Acton Institute Powerblog

Why ‘Anti-Sharia’ Legislation Can Restrict Religious Liberty for Christians

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

no-shariaOn Tuesday, voters in Alabama passed a ballot measure that, among other things, forbids courts, arbitrators, and administrative agencies from applying or “enforcing a foreign law if doing so would violate any state law or a right guaranteed by the Constitution of this state or of the United States.” Such measures (other states have passed similar laws) are often dubbed “anti-Sharia” measures since preventing the encroachment of Sharia is usually their primary objective.

Sharia is the moral code and religious law of Islam that deals with topics addressed by secular law, including crime, politics, and economics, as well as personal matters such as sexual relations, hygiene, diet, and prayer. The two primary sources of Sharia law are the Quran and the example set by the founder of Islam, Muhammad. The introduction of Sharia across the globe is a longstanding goal for Islamist movements.

Opposing Sharia law may appear to be commonsensical measure. But such laws are unnecessary since state law and the Constitution already trump foreign law. They also can’t be written to oppose only Sharia (that would be religious discrimination) so they are written in a broad way that has unintended consequences.

Indeed, there is a compelling reason why Christians should be leery of joining in supporting anti-Sharia legislation: By helping to push the idea that religious beliefs should be kept private, anti-Sharia laws are a threat to all of our religious liberties. As the Catholic legal scholar Robert K. Vischer explained last year in First Things:

Though popular with secularists and religious conservatives, anti-Sharia legislation does not defend against theocracy but calls into question our society’s fundamental commitments to meaningful religious liberty and meaningful access to the courts. These commitments have been relied on by generations of Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, and Jews, and to try to remove them for Muslims both is unjust to Muslims and sets a dangerous precedent for other religious groups.

[. . .]

Before Christian and Jewish believers support such measures, they should consider the way these laws not only misunderstand the faith of their Muslim fellow citizens but threaten their own religious liberty. Muslim Americans who seek to use Sharia are not asking the American legal system to adopt Islamic rules of conduct, penal or otherwise. Muslims have introduced Sharia in court not in an attempt to establish a freestanding source of law binding on litigants but rather in recognition of the norms to which the litigants have already agreed to be bound.

American courts do this every day—it’s called contract law. Even the literature being pumped out by anti-Sharia organizations shows that their target is not the threat posed by the imposition of Sharia on American society but rather the threat posed by the introduction of Sharia according to the same criteria of admissibility applied by courts to other religious codes.

Vischer gives an example of a Baptist church, whose rules may state that a pastor can be removed only by a vote of the entire membership. If the court determines that a small group of members ousted the pastor without the required vote, the court will uphold the pastor’s challenge despite the fact that the rules are based on a religious commitment (i.e., the Baptist commitment to the priesthood of all believers).

Another example is when courts enforce arbitration agreements based on biblical principles pursuant to widely invoked rules of “Christian conciliation.” To exclude similar agreements between Muslims that are based on Islamic principles would be to violate their freedom of religion — and set a precedent that could jeopardize the religious liberty of Christians.

As Vischer adds, “the presumption that the deepest core values and convictions of religious Americans threaten the legal order by virtue of their source, without reference to their substance.” If we don’t want biblical principles to be terms excluded from American court system, we shouldn’t rush to support such ballot measures.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Ronco

    Mr. Carter, your piece is either tone deaf, or not quite as honest as it should be. I agree that if we Americans more clearly understood the rights we’ve been given by the Constitution and State Constitutions, these “anti-Sharia” regulations wouldn’t be necessary. We live, however, in a time where our judiciary and our culture have already rejected Judeo-Christian morality. When the law itself ignores morality and allows different standards for different sub-cultures and groups, rather respecting those citizens as a self-governing nation, then perhaps certain measures are more understandable. You also err when you state that Sharia is a standard which Islamists wish to “introduce”. These modern day fascists wish more than anything else to impose Sharia on any people they come to dominate. As you can plainly see in some of the news reporting this past year, they impose things rather brutally. It never pays, at moments like these, to be as naïve about evil as you seem to be.

    • So you think we should sacrifice our religious liberties for the infinitely small chance that Sharia law will gain a foothold in the American legal system?

      Also, I’m not sure how these laws are supposed to work. The Constitution already trumps state law, so if the Constitution can’t protect us from a judiciary that would impose Sharia neither could a state law.

      • JudgeRight

        Mr Carter, by limiting sharia-law you are not sacrificing our liberties, you are protecting them. The limitation of evil is the foundation of freedom. Don’t be so inflexible and legalistic about the meaning of freedom. Freedom is found in truth, and sharia is based on lies and violence. You may want to check my post above, too. I imagine Lord Acton would agree with me. Best regards!

  • JudgeRight

    There is nothing wrong with religious discrimination if the religion is false or bad.

    People do have the right to be deceived and government should not meddle with their fantasies. But when it comes to actions the ruler bears the sword for the very purpose to punish the bad guys. For their actions, not their thoughts. (Although we are certain that there is a link between them.)

    If you elevate freedom of speech as equal to ultimate freedom, which requires truth, then you are providing protection for possible bondage. Bad guys today will hide behind freedom of speech to justify their right to lie, slander, propagate evil and glorify villains. Namely that sort of extremism in protecting “free speech” is the idiocy that is the reason for the current American moral corruption. Idiots like the “creators” of South Park and similar nonsense are protected under the free speech clause. The Framers did not even have an idea that one day morons like the ones said will use their idea of protecting dissenting political, ideological and religious views from government persecution, for the gratification of their own sinful nature.

    The Constitution is for good guys with consciences, said John Adams. The Sharia people are not among them. The government must act to protect the good from the bad, and the good can make sure that the government stays good by prayer and speaking up. That’s freedom.

    Conclusion: If you have good people applying anti-sharia laws, all will be fine. And we know that if we let sharia-law be law, then no good people will be found around. Do I need to cite sources on this?