Worry over Shariah law in Idaho jeopardizes child support
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The U.S. has spent years leading negotiations toward an international treaty that would make it easier for single parents worldwide to collect child-support payments.
But families across the country could be stuck with the cumbersome existing system after legislators in a single state rejected the deal because, they said, it could allow Islamic law to influence American courts.
The move by Idaho threatens an effort involving dozens of nations that set out more than a decade ago to improve procedures that have made it difficult, sometimes impossible, for parents' to get the money.
Idaho leaders now face pressure to reverse their decision and have called a special legislative session, which begins Monday and will cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars each day.
Experts and families around the U.S. are watching closely, especially those among the 150,000 active international child-support cases involving about $600 million annually.
Worries about the spread of Shariah have surfaced in several states in recent years, often resulting in proposals to restrict the use of foreign law in state courts.
Opponents dismiss these bills as anti-Islamic fear-mongering. They say Shariah has never trumped U.S. state or federal law.
Supporters, meanwhile, say the legislation protects states' rights in an increasingly globalized world.
Foreign law bans have been introduced this year in 17 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Nine states have passed them, and a bill in Mississippi was recently signed into law.
Until now, the debate had been academic. But when nine lawmakers on an Idaho House panel last month killed a bill required as part of the state-by-state ratification process, it jeopardized the international effort as well as the state's entire child-support collection and payment system.
Idaho's special session will focus solely on legislation related to the treaty. The governor and others want to overcome concerns of opponents who say it could require the state to enforce rulings made in other nations under Islamic law.
"There are other countries listed in the treaty — France, Belgium — that have recognized Shariah courts as quasi-courts," Republican state Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll told the committee last month.
State and federal officials say such worry is baseless because language in the treaty outlines states' rights to reject deals that do not uphold basic American-style standards of legal fairness.
The state-level pressure also includes huge losses for Idaho triggered by the rejection. About $46 million in federal funds are tied to the legislation, along with access to payment processing systems that include automatic payroll deductions.
Without that system, Idaho leaders will need to find a new way to process the state's 155,000 child-support cases, which involve about $205 million annually.
"It's scary to think about not getting those payments," said Yvonne Stoneburner, a single mom just outside Boise.
Stoneburner receives child-support payments for one of her two young children from her ex-boyfriend in Texas and relies on the automatic system. "I'm lucky. I've never had a missed payment," she said.
The Hague Convention on the International Recovery of Child Support is unusual for multi-nation deals in that it requires signoff from all 50 states. It was set up that way because child-support collection in the U.S. is the responsibility of state governments, not federal authorities. It piggybacks on a state-by-state approval system for domestic child-support policy that has long been in place.
The Health and Human Services Department says 28 states have passed their treaty compliance bills, and measures have cleared the legislature and are awaiting governors' signatures in five others.
Meg Haynes, a senior associate with the Center for the Support of Families and an expert on international child support, said she's never seen a state miss a mandatory bill deadline until now. She declined to speculate whether the U.S. might find a way to ratify the treaty if Idaho refused to reconsider, saying: "I want to be an optimist."
The treaty seeks to improve a scattershot system in which states draft agreements with foreign countries. During a hearing before a House Ways and Means subcommittee, the director of Michigan's child-support office, Marilyn Stephen, said the treaty would be a big improvement, since settlements under such procedures often took years to arrange.
Member nations have been ratifying the treaty since five years of negotiations concluded in 2007, and HHS officials say concerns over Shariah are misguided.
Vicki Turetsky, commissioner of the department's Office of Child Support Enforcement, issued a memorandum last month explaining states' protections against foreign rulings they consider unjust.
Eileen Stack, who oversees New York state's child-support enforcement program, said many families seeking payments across borders would benefit from the treaty, especially those that cannot afford to hire an attorney in another country.
"It is very difficult," she said, "to get acknowledgement of U.S. orders in countries without an agreement."
Crary reported from New York.