JUNEAU -- Palmer Republican Rep. Carl Gatto has set off a political firestorm with a bill aimed at stopping what he deems as the potential of Islamic religious law -- Sharia -- trumping the U.S. Constitution in Alaska courts.
Gatto said he has strong support of Mat-Su area tea party groups and has received nearly 500 emails and phone calls from places like New Zealand, Poland and Israel in support of his bill. It's part of a push nationally by conservative state legislators, with similar measures introduced in more than a dozen states.
A Muslim group in Anchorage says Gatto is spreading an anti-Islam message and the Alaska Civil Liberties Union argues the bill could have unintended legal consequences. The Alaska Department of Law, meanwhile, testified it's hard to see the bill having any real effect as U.S. law already reigns supreme in Alaska's courts.
Gatto said he grew up in New York City, where his Italian neighborhood clung to technically illegal customs like giving a child whiskey to help with illness. But the world of other immigrants is different, he argued.
"I'm more concerned about cultures that are vastly different from European immigrants, who come here and prefer to maintain their specific laws from their previous countries, which are in violent conflict with American law," Gatto said. "That's the issue that I am worried about."
Gatto's proposal, House Bill 88, says Alaska courts can't apply foreign law if it would violate an individual's rights guaranteed by the Constitutions of the United States or the state of Alaska. Gatto doesn't have examples of Alaska courts imposing Islamic Sharia law but said his bill is determined to make sure that it doesn't happen.
A member of the Islamic Community Center of Alaska sent an email addressed to Gatto saying 4,000 to 6,000 Muslims live peacefully in Alaska and asking him to "please do not ignite hate and misunderstanding." Another Muslim from Anchorage, Lamin Jobarteh, said Muslims follow U.S. law. There is no Sharia law in Alaska, he said.
"There is nothing like that. We have a harmonious relationship with everybody here," said Jobarteh, who said he's originally from Gambia and has lived in Anchorage for the past 17 years.
It's become an issue throughout the nation. Oklahoma voters in November approved a ban against state judges considering Islamic law in making their court decisions. The ban is tied up in court.
The sponsor of the Oklahoma ban pointed to a family court judge in New Jersey citing a man's Islamic faith in denying a restraining order to a woman who said she had been raped by her husband. The ruling was overturned by a higher court.
A model for the anti-Sharia bills around the country came from an Arizona attorney named David Yerushalmi. The Anti- Defamation League has called him a bigot for past writings such as, in an article commenting on murders of blacks by blacks in New York, said it appeared to be a "relatively murderous race killing itself" and that "Muslim civilization is at war with Judeo-Christian civilization."
Yerushalmi said in an emailed response this week that his words have been twisted, that he doesn't countenance racism and that "Sharia is an objective and knowable legal system that is offensive to our constitutional liberties."
The Council on American-Islamic Relations called on Gatto to drop his invitation for Stop Islamization of America Executive Director Pamela Geller to testify at a Wednesday hearing on his bill, saying she leads a hate group.
Gatto shrugged off the request. "Anybody can make a statement that if they are opposed to your point of view they're a hate group," he said.
A New York Times profile of Geller that ran last fall described the growing influence of her website, Atlas Shrugs, and her posting of doctored photos of Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan in a Nazi helmet and suggestion that the State Department was run by "Islamic Supremacists."
Geller testified Wednesday by telephone to the Alaska House Judiciary Committee, which Gatto chairs.
"How can anyone oppose a law that seeks to prevent foreign laws from undermining fundamental Constitutional liberties?" Geller said.
Geller maintained "surveys in the Muslim world" show most Muslims want a unified caliphate with a "strict al-Qaida-like Sharia." She spoke of Muslim polygamy, jihad in support of Sharia, and said Muslims have demanded special accommodation in U.S. schools, workplaces and government.
Anchorage Democratic Rep. Lindsey Holmes objected.
"I'm getting very uncomfortable with what I see is some fairly negative testimony against a large segment of society. I think we're getting off into some pretty dangerous, divisive territory," Holmes said,
Geller responded that "I don't think I did anything offensive, I merely stated the facts."
Activist and former Muslim Nonie Darwish testified in support of the bill, talking about oppression of women in her home country of Egypt. Sam Obeidi, an Anchorage businessman, told the committee that American Muslims respect the U.S Constitution, and that Sharia was being mischaracterized.
Anchorage Democratic Rep. Max Gruenberg said the bill as written wouldn't apply to criminal law, and asked a lawyer for the state whether she could see a scenario where the bill would make any difference in how the laws are being applied in Alaska.
"I've had difficulty figuring out how it could ever be applied," said Assistant Attorney General Mary Ellen Beardsley.
Anchorage Rep. Holmes and ACLU of Alaska director Jeffrey Mittman said the bill could cause unintended problems with international contracts that are drawn up between individuals and corporations.
Gatto's own Italian-American forebears faced discrimination in this country from those who came before. According to numerous historical accounts, Italians, arriving in waves from the 1880s to the First World War, were at times seen as vastly different from the Northern Europeans who settled earlier.
Among the prejudices were the connection of ordinary Italians to the Mafia, leading to a notorious lynching of 11 Italian immigrants in Louisiana in 1891. Congress passed several bills in the era designed to stem immigration from southern and eastern Europe, culminating in the quotas of the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924. During World War II, fears that some Italian immigrants would support Mussolini led to the internment of several hundred, while 10,000 were ordered to leave sensitive military areas of the West Coast.