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Islam Class Probably Can't Solve Landlord Dispute

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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You might think Donald Trump could use a crash course in Islam, but there's no way to make him take it. A Massachusetts judge, however, faced with a convicted defendant who demonstrated anti-Muslim views, ordered her to take a class on Islam as part of her probation. Now the commonwealth’s Supreme Judicial Court will have to decide whether the sentence was an unconstitutional infringement of religious liberty or a common-sense, measure-for-measure matter of justice.

The facts grow out of that most brutal of human interactions, the landlord-tenant dispute. They also have an intriguing cultural background, which turns out to be relevant to the constitutional issues in the case. Daisy Obi, the landlord-turned-criminal, is a 73-year-old Nigerian immigrant who serves as pastor of the Adonai Bible Center in Somerville, Massachusetts. She owns a multifamily house of the kind common in multicultural Somerville, and rented out an apartment in it to Gihan Suliman, her husband and five children. Suliman is a lab supervisor and Harvard student who also happens to be Muslim.

Things went badly from the start, when Suliman complained about the lack of heat in the apartment. Electricity was spotty, too. Eventually Obi pushed Suliman down a flight of stairs, bruising her face and tearing a ligament in her shoulder. For this Obi was convicted of assault and battery.

In the course of the trial, it came out that Obi had told Suliman that Muslims “should be burned in hell” and that the “prophet should be burned in hell.” Once, when Suliman was taking her baby into the house, Obi “screamed at her other children waiting on the steps, yelling that ‘they're wicked kids, they're evil because they are Muslims … they will be delivered in hell.’”

Arguing before the judge, Paul Yee, Obi’s lawyer (perhaps unconsciously echoing her client) said Suliman was “the tenant from hell.”

Sentencing Obi, the judge rejoined that the case wasn't about “the tenant from hell, but the landlord from hell.” Yee gave Obi two years in prison, suspending all but the first six months.

Then came the controversial part: Yee ordered Obi to “enroll [in] and attend an introductory course on Islam” as part of her probation given Obi’s disrespect for the victim.

On appeal, Obi’s lawyers have two plausible constitutional arguments against the required course. One is that mandating the study of religion amounts to an establishment of religion in violation of the establishment clause. The other is that Obi’s exercise of religion would be violated by making her study a faith that she clearly reviles.

Massachusetts concedes that the judge couldn’t make Obi participate in any kind of religious practice. But it says that Obi isn’t being forced to adopt a religious practice or being discouraged from a religious practice -- she’s just being required to learn about Islam in order to comply with a state anti-discrimination laws.

The establishment clause claim is the weaker one. The government can’t force you to participate in a religious practice, but in some circumstances it may require you to learn about religion. Consider a required comparative-religion class in a public high school or university: The state is permitted to teach it provided it isn’t endorsing a particular religion or religion generally. Because the establishment clause applies to the government in general, either it’s allowed to mandate teaching about religion or it isn’t. Constitutionality wouldn’t depend on the particular person who objected.

If the government was requiring everybody to study a particular religion, that might look like endorsement. But under the circumstances, the judge was clearly reacting to a particular person’s anti-Muslim beliefs. Judge Yee wasn’t endorsing Islam.

Obi’s free exercise is a more complicated matter. Believing that Muslims are going to burn in hell isn’t illegal -- it’s a constitutionally protected religious belief. And there’s no reason to doubt that Obi believes it sincerely. Nigerian evangelical Christians are engaged in a long-term, intense polemical engagement with Muslims in their own country. Consciously or not, Yee was probably reacting to the extremity of Obi’s confrontational behavior.

If Obi sincerely says that being obligated to study Islam would violate her religious tenets, then it’s probably beyond the state’s power to force her to do so, even if she’s been convicted of a crime. It’s true that according to the commonwealth, she isn’t being forced to do anything religious. But an individual may consider the study of another religion to violate her own religion, even if that study seems neutral to you or me.

Requiring Obi to take a course on Islam comes uncomfortably close to trying to brainwash her into abandoning her intolerant religious beliefs and becoming tolerant.

Obi doesn’t have to understand Islam in order to follow anti-discrimination laws. She just has to know that, regardless of her beliefs about Islam, she can’t discriminate against Muslims. And in fact, she did rent to the Muslim Suliman family, which is some indication that she wasn’t discriminating against them.

It emerges that the Supreme Judicial Court should probably remove the sentencing requirement and make Obi study something else, like anger management. And although the state can’t require it, maybe Obi should take a long, hard look at Matthew 5:44.

  1. They haven’t exactly distinguished the two arguments in their brief, but the Supreme Judicial Court could do that for them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net