Florida: A Victory for Human Rights – “Yasmeen’s Law” signed by Governor Scott
May 12, 2014, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed into law a bill to protect the human rights of women and children in the Sunshine State from the intrusion of foreign laws and doctrines undermining fundamental Constitutional rights. There is nothing in the law that Governor Scott signed that mentions Muslims, Sharia, Islam or any other religious or ecclesiastical law. It is facially neutral.
However, the legislation, while based on the American Law for American Courts model law adopted in various forms by six other states, offers in the Florida version relief to women and children against predatory practices often in violation of federal, state and even international law. One of those foreign laws is Sharia, Islamic law, which controls every aspect of a Muslim’s life, and in all too many cases, the lives of non-Muslim wives and the children of those unions. Under Sharia, a husband, a son and male relatives are deemed to have absolute control over their wives and children.
Research conducted by the Center for Security Policy (CSP) and its affiliate the American Public Policy Alliance (APPA) found over two dozen instances in which foreign laws had intruded in family and other matters in both lower and appellate court decisions in Florida. The law signed by Governor Scott, diverged from the American Law for American Courts model developed by incorporating applicable Florida case law to preserve those rights in family law and other matters. This enabled passage and ultimate enactment in the 2014 Tallahassee legislative session.
Video Testimonies about American Child Abductions under Foreign Law
Key to the 2014 legislative success was a graphic message about Shariah’s war on American women and children conveyed in two video interviews we conducted. One was with Margaret McLain, a retired Arkansas State University professor who lost her five-year-old daughter, Heidi, now 16, years earlier to an abduction and removal to Saudi Arabia by her Saudi ex- husband. We had chanced to meet Professor McClain at a Jonesboro ACT! For America Chapter presentation in September 2013. Through Professor McClain, we were introduced to a 28 year old South Florida woman, Yasmeen A. Davis. Ms. Davis had been abducted at age 11 by her mother’s Saudi ex-husband and removed to Saudi Arabia. Yasmeen was mistreated at her father’s residence in the Kingdom because of her refusal to convert to Islam and still bears the effects. Her Saudi father still keeps tabs on her through periodic calls to her from his American lawyers and an ex-FBI agent hired by him. She suffers from the equivalent of PTSD as a result of her experience. Ms. Davis was rescued through the resources of her family at age 13. Both Professor McClain and Ms. Davis had testified in a series of US House of Representative hearings in 2002 along with a panel of other similarly victimized American parents and children. The hearings were held before the US House of Representatives Government Reform Committee chaired by former Indiana Republican Representative Dan Burton and was televised.
It is our contention that the ALAC legislation enacted in Florida in 2014 might be called Yasmeen’s Law. It is a testament to the courage and resolve by Ms. Davis and her family to secure her rescue. During our interview with her, she hoped that ALAC might protect other similarly importuned American families in Florida from what she experienced 17 years ago.
The Phone call that began the battle for enactment of Florida ALAC
Introduction of the model ALAC legislation in the 2011 session was facilitated by Christopher Holton, then VP for Outreach at the CSP and New Orleans lawyer, Stephen M. Gelé, Esq., who headed the APPA. The sponsors of the model ALAC legislation in the 2011 legislative session in Tallahassee were Sen. Alan Hays (R- Senate District – 11 Umatilla) in the Senate and Rep. Larry Metz (R-House District- 32 Groveland). The fact that it took four years after the introduction of the model law in the 2011 Florida legislative session indicated that its fundamental merits survived the deliberative process.
A volunteer advisory team that supported this effort resulted from a phone call in January 2012 from Joseph Sabag, Esq. a politically astute young Southern Florida lawyer who contacted this writer on an unrelated matter.
Enter Anthony Verdugo and the Citizen-Lobbyists of the Florida Christian Coalition
The Sabag phone call led to discovery of the citizen lobbying prowess of the Florida Christian Family Coalition (CFC) led by Anthony “Tony” Verdugo. Verdugo had an amazing grasp of the nuances in the Florida legislative process. That was evident his ability to invite Florida Senate and House leaders and a Presidential candidate to the January 2012 CFC Annual Legislative Prayer Breakfast. Former US Senate Republican majority leader, Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum spoke at the 2012 CFC event before an audience of more than 120 citizen – lobbyists. Verdugo’s group represents 5,000 members in the Sunshine State. His leadership of CFC’s diverse members has successfully obtained passage on a number of social issues.
Enter Florida Senator Hays and the Volunteer Advisory Team
Sabag introduced me to Sen. Hays who was the sponsor of the Stand With Israel resolution. At that initial encounter in his Senate office in 2012 we briefly discussed the ALAC bill and underlying issues. The Stand with Israel resolution was passed by the Florida Senate on February 1, 2012 by a resounding bipartisan Senate vote, 39 to 0, while the House version passed on February 29th by 108 to 0.
Out of that success emerged the voluntary advisory team that included Sabag, Christopher Holton, now with Act! for America, Rabbi Jonathan Hausman, Verdugo of CFC and this writer. The volunteer team worked closely with Sen. Hays and other legislators to conduct research and develop FAQs, training aides, media op-eds, and video presentations.
Although the bill stalled in the 2013 legislative session in Tallahassee, Sen. Alan Hays held a conference call with the advisory team. He noted there was no longer a super majority of Republicans in both chambers, but nevertheless asked, why not make another try in 2014? In 2013, the ALAC bill had once again passed all the House committee referrals and a full chamber vote. On the Senate side under the leadership of Senate President Don Gaetz (R. Senate Dist. 1 – Destin) the bill was referred to four committees, but was prevented from going forward to a final hearing by the Senate Rules Committee, the penultimate stop before a floor vote. The advisory team suggested that to start the process in the 2014 session earlier than normal with legislative planning sessions in the summer of 2013. This was to be followed by bill enrollment and securing a reduced number of committee referrals from the leadership preceding the start of the 60 day legislative session in March 2014.
Overcoming the Opposition to Florida ALAC.
It is said that the legislative process is equivalent to making sausage. Perhaps that analogy may be the pragmatic reality. In 2014 the core message of protection of women and children coupled with research in foreign family laws matters contributed to overcoming vocal opposition from the strange alliance of Muslim advocacy groups and Jewish Defense groups. The Muslim Advocacy groups included the Florida and national Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), Emerge USA, United Voices for America, while Jewish defense groups included the Anti-Defamation League and the National Council of Jewish Women. They were bolstered by representatives from both Family and International Law sections of the Florida bar association. The opponents frequently voiced the opinion that the legislation was “unnecessary,” “duplicative,” “ didn’t recognize the competency of the state’s judiciary,” and “prevented foreign investment” in Florida. At its worst the Muslim opponents resorted to ad hominem attacks accusing bill sponsors of being “Islamophobes,” “racists,” and “bullies.”
Jewish defense groups contended that the legislation would bar recognition of Israeli Rabbinic family law decrees recognized under Florida practice. It was research by a Family Law expert at Tel Aviv University Prof. Daphna Hackner published in a peer reviewed international legal journal that put that to rest. Rabbi Jonathan Hausman, educated in bothJewish Halacha and Sharia Islamic law, with US law degrees and education at the American University in Cairo, enabled him to interpret both religious laws. An Israeli lawyer and family relation of Rabbi Hausman’s facilitated the connections with Professor Hackner. Rabbi Hausman drafted op-eds and letters to legislators explaining why the change in laws was necessary.
Rabbi Hausman’s video interview on the legislation and those of Professor McClain and Ms. Davis were loaded into Sen. Hays’ iPad so that he could take them around to show Committee chairs and members during hearings on the measure. The advisory team prepared training presentations, revised FAQs to be used in sessions organized for the 2014 CFC citizen lobbyist day on March 13, 2014. The approximately 100 CFC citizen lobbyists who were bused in to the Tallahassee Doubletree Hotel listened attentively to presentations by Sen. Hays, House sponsor of ALAC, Neil Combee (R. House District 39, Auburndale), and guest speaker Professor McClain. By the end of the day, they secured commitments from 39 Florida legislators.
The Victory for Florida ALAC
After four years of effort in the face of misinformed opposition, an amended version of ALAC passed the Florida Legislature. The Senate sponsor, Senator Alan Hays, said on April 28th when the Senate passed the measure by a partisan vote of 24 Republicans to 14 Democrats:
I am delighted that my colleagues in the Florida Senate passed SB 386 – The Application of Foreign Law in Certain Cases.
It is my fervent desire to make sure everyone in a Florida courtroom is protected from the imposition of any foreign law that may diminish the rights of that person which are afforded by our US and Florida Constitutions. This bill codifies case law to offer those protections and is a welcome addition to the statutes of our state.
I sincerely appreciate the efforts of many others who assisted in the passage of this landmark legislation.
House Rep. Mike Hill, (R. House District -2 Pensacola), a member of the Subcommittee on Civil Justice, following House passage on April 30th of HB 903 by a vote of 78 Republicans to 40 Democrats, said:
I am honored to join my colleagues and vote ‘yes’ on the bill that passed the Florida House codifying that American law only will be used in Florida courts. It is our duty to do so as I took an oath to protect the Constitutions of the United States and the State of Florida.
Rabbi Jonathan Hausman and I were in the Florida House Public Gallery on Tuesday, April 29th and witnessed the floor debate with questions from opposition Democrats to House bill sponsor Rep. Neil Combee. Misinformed, they persisted in asking why the measure was necessary. Rep. Combee cited both lower court and appellate level cases in which foreign law had been recognized that did not comply with the comity principles under Florida practice as justification for passing the measure.
Prior to the Senate and House deliberations on ALAC we suggested to the bill sponsors that the amended version be reviewed by Stephen M. Gelé, Esq. of the New Orleans law firm of Smith Fawer LLC, former Chair of the APPA. Despite his being on vacation, Gelé sent his assessment of the legislation that we received via Christopher Holton of ACT! Gelé wrote:
The Florida Legislature recently passed and Gov. Scott signed into law SB 386, a bill that will help protect Floridians from foreign law that is inconsistent with American values, such as Islamic Sharia law. The law will help protect Florida parents who face loss of their children to a foreign custody judgment; help protect spouses who face unfair foreign judgments of divorce, spousal support, or marital property distributions; help protect parents and spouses from marital contracts (including Islamic marital contracts often named mahrs) that would force decisions regarding child custody, spousal support and marital property distributions to be decided in foreign courts or under foreign law in American courts; and, help protect parents and spouses from having disputes regarding child custody, spousal support and marital property distributions from being dismissed by Florida courts in favor of being decided in foreign courts.
Although American and Florida courts have held in the past that foreign law should not be applied when the foreign law offends public policy, this concept has not previously been strengthened by statute. Further, under current Florida child custody statutes a judge can refuse to enforce a foreign custody judgment only “if the child custody law of a foreign country violates fundamental principles of human rights.” Unfortunately, statements by the U.S. State Department suggest that “fundamental principles of human rights” should be interpreted more narrowly than most Americans would interpret the phrase. However, ALAC allows a Florida judge to refuse to enforce a foreign custody judgment under the much broader standard of whether the judgment offends the public policy of Florida.
Therefore, the most important effect of the law will be to protect parents from losing their children to foreign custody decrees, which has happened before.
Gele’s comments are reflective of a new theme based on the recommendation of Kansas House Speaker Pro Tempore, Rep. Peg Mast. Mast successfully secured bi-partisan support for passage of ALAC in the 2012 session in Topeka. She suggested emphasizing protection of “fundamental Constitutional rights” for Florida women and children. That meant putting a human face to the theme of the foreign law war on women and children. This was reflected in interviews women, Professor Margaret McClain and Ms. Yasmeen Davis.
Without the dogged determination of the legislation’s sponsors like Sen. Hays and Rep. Combee with the support of advocates in the House Reps. Mike Hill, Larry Metz and Matt Gaetz, what occurred in the final week of the 2014 Florida legislative session might not have happened.
Other important legislation was passed in Tallahassee in the final week of the 2014 session
Sen. Hays had also deftly maneuvered another measure directed at text book review, SB 864, which passed the Senate with a tally of 21 Republicans to 19 Democrats. The measure reversed State Department of Education control over selection of textbooks returning that role to Florida’s 67 school districts, requiring open public hearing on texts used in courses. SB 864 was largely prompted by objections of parental groups in several Florida counties about the treatment of Islam and Muslim culture in world history textbooks that are on the Florida State Department of Education list of approved texts.
The House passed the amended SB864/HB 921 by a resounding bi-partisan vote.
Like the experience with ALAC SB 864/HB 921: “on K to 12 instruction materials,” was amended following a conference with both Senate and House sponsors in consultation with the Governor’s office. While it requires clarification that standards of fact-based accurate in world history texts should be adhered to, it also creates a process giving parents an opportunity at school district level to trigger a public hearing. The laws also adds requirements that instructional materials “accurately portray the religious and physical diversity of our society.” Further, it makes the school district boards responsible for the content of all instructional materials used in the classroom. One important requirement is that the amended law would add a new topic in the curriculum specified in 1003.42, F.S. –“the events surrounding the terrorist attacks occurring on 9/11/01 and the impacts of those events on the nation.”
Those of us who have been involved with the support of both measures consider them landmarks for possible consideration in other US states. This might not satisfy all of the concerns in certain quarters; however, they reflect two well turned precepts. Voltaire wrote: “a wise Italian says that the best is the enemy of the good.” German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck said: “politics is the art of the possible.”
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.