Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Dispute Over Ouster of Mosque Trustees Reignites Debate Over U.S. Courts Applying Shariah Law

A case in Tampa, Florida has re-ignited debate over the application of Shariah law by U.S. courts. The unusual procedural posture of the case has a Tampa mosque arguing against Florida courts applying religious law, while former trustees of the mosque are arguing in favor of using religious law.

As best as can be pieced together from a report in yesterday's St. Petersburg Times, four individuals claim that in 2002 they were improperly removed as trustees of the Islamic Education Center of Tampa. The board make-up is particularly contentious because the mosque has $2.2 million it received in an eminent domain proceeding when the state took some of its land to build a road. The ousted trustees filed a lawsuit against the other trustees of the mosque challenging the validity of their actions that purported to remove plaintiffs from the board. However apparently all the parties agreed that if the lawsuit was dismissed by the state court, the dispute would be submitted to arbitration by an "A'lim"-- a Muslim scholar trained in Islamic law. The suit was dismissed by the court, and in arbitration proceedings that followed, the A'lim ruled that the plaintiffs had been improperly removed.

Plaintiffs then filed another state court lawsuit against the mosque itself asking the court to enforce the arbitration ruling on the mosque and reinstate them as trustees. The court issued an oral interlocutory order during an evidentiary hearing on plaintiff's emergency motion to enforce the arbitrator's award. This was followed by a written order memorializing the court's ruling.  It is this order in Mansour v. Islamic Education Center of Tampa, Inc., (FL Cir. Ct., March 3, 2011) (full text) that has become controversial. In the suit to enforce the arbitration ruling, the mosque argued that the arbitration ruling was not binding on it because its board was never properly notified of the arbitration proceeding.  The mosque, as opposed to some or all of the individual defendants, did not participate in the arbitration.  So the court ruled that it would now proceed to determine "whether Islamic dispute resolution procedures have been followed in this matter."  In its order, the court recited that: "This case will proceed under Ecclesiastical Islamic law."

The mosque has filed an appeal of the trial court's order, arguing that Florida law, not Islamic law, should be applied by the civil courts.