Delaware senator criticized for suggesting Muslims want to ‘subvert our constitution’

State Sen. Dave Lawson is sponsoring a bill that would ban “foreign law” in Delaware courts. A Muslim group contends the bill is rooted in Islamophobia.

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The exterior of Legislative Hall in Dover.

Legislative Hall in Dover. (Zoë Read/WHYY)

The Delaware state senator behind a bill to prevent “foreign laws” from being used in local courts has drawn criticism from a Muslim advocacy group — and some fellow lawmakers.

State Sen. Dave Lawson, a Republican from Kent County, insists his bill is not specifically about any religion.

“This bill is straight up. What they are reading into it is beyond me,’’ Lawson said. “It’s nothing more than Catholic canons or any other religious sect coming in and influencing our court decisions.”

Sen. Dave Lawson, a Republican from Kent County (State of Delaware)

“I have no problem with anyone’s religious thinking. But when it comes to denigrating the Constitution, or wanting to deteriorate it in any way, shape or form, or attack it, then there’s a problem. I don’t care from what corner,” he said.

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Lawson said his measure is designed to prevent defendants or litigants from citing foreign laws in civil or criminal cases, such as ones involving domestic violence. He said it’s been attempted across the country dozens of times, but didn’t cite any efforts in Delaware.

There was a 2010 case in New Jersey where a Muslim man said he could not be guilty of beating and sexually assaulting his wife under his interpretation of his faith. A judge initially ruled in his favor in denying his wife a restraining order, but other courts overturned him.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) contends Lawson’s bill is modeled after one in another state that had targeted Sharia law, a set of guidelines for Muslims.

Robert McCaw, CAIR’s director of government affairs, testified at a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Delaware that Lawson’s measure is “redundant and bigoted.”

And this week he called on state officials to rebuke Lawson because during that hearing he asked if Muslims want to “subvert our constitution.”

“To challenge American Muslims’ support for our country, of our constitution, this is part of a long ongoing theme of targeting religious minorities that happened across our nation’s history,’’ McCaw said.

“American Muslims are some of the most hard-working citizens. Like all other communities, they support this country and to be attacked by an elected official for his own political gain and to score a few points, it’s shameful,” he said.

Seven other states have similar laws, but the closest to Delaware is North Carolina.

McCaw noted that in 2017, Lawson marched out of the Senate chambers just before two Muslim leaders gave the opening invocation. After the prayer was finished, he returned to the Senate chambers and told colleagues the the Quran “calls for our very demise.”

According to CAIR, bills aiming to ban the use of foreign law “is often purposefully broad to block legal challenges to their discriminatory natures.”

The group noted that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled in its favor by upholding a lower court’s decision to block implementation of an Oklahoma state constitutional amendment that would have prohibited courts from applying or considering Sharia law.

In 2013, Oklahoma legislators “circumvented constitutionality concerns’’ by enacting a foreign law ban, CAIR said.

Democratic state Sen. Stephanie Hansen countered Lawson’s position by noting that the Delaware and U.S. Constitution “already forbid any law other than the U.S. law, so the whole point behind this bill is simply to stoke animosity toward Islam. He has a history of anti-Islamic sentiments and actions so it’s obvious what this is aimed for regardless of any coy explanation.”

The bill hasn’t been released from the committee and Lawson acknowledged that at least this year, “it’s dead.”

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