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SJC Weighs Court-Mandated Class On Islam In Landlord-Tenant Dispute

A view of the John Adams Courthouse, where the SJC makes its rulings. (mcritz/Flickr)

A view of the John Adams Courthouse, where the SJC makes its rulings. (mcritz/Flickr)

There’s a case before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court now that’s highlighting a surprising tension between freedom of religion and criminal justice.

The case is Commonwealth vs. Obi. In 2012, Somerville landlord Daisy Obi assaulted her tenant — Gihan Suliman. Obi was convicted of pushing Suliman down a flight of stairs. Suliman also accused Obi of screaming anti-Muslim insults at her, a charge Obi denies. Obi is also an ordained Christian minister from Nigeria.

Fast forward to 2015. When sentencing Obi last year, Judge Paul Yee called her “the landlord from hell,” and gave her two years in jail on the assault charge, but Obi was required to serve only six months, if she complied with probation conditions that included taking an introductory course on Islam.

Is that legal? Can the state require someone to learn about another religion? Is that “coercion to support or participate in a religion”? Is it a violation of constitutional rights, or an innovative means to rehabilitate?

Those are the questions facing the state’s highest court, and the SJC’s justices engaged with them fully during oral argument.

“If people offend other people because of their religion and that offense is somehow caught up in some criminal activity because words are exchanged, the court should be in the business of ordering people to learn about other religions. Our business?” asked Justice Robert Cordy of Assistant District Attorney Mary O’Neill.

“It’s not in the business to force people to learn about other religions, it’s in the business of the court to encourage people to not commit further violent crimes,” O’Neill responded.

Guest

Noah Feldman, professor of law at Harvard University and director of the Julis-Rabinowitz Program on Jewish and Israeli Law. He tweets @NoahRFeldman.

More

Bloomberg View: Education On Islam Probably Can’t Solve Landlord Dispute

  • “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.”

Suffolk University: Watch The Oral Arguments

  • “Various issues arising out of conviction for assault and battery on the defendant’s tenant, a Muslim, including whether conditions of probation were proper; conditions of probation were that (1) defendant enroll in an introductory course on Islam and (2) defendant inform tenants and prospective tenants that she had been convicted of assaulting her tenant.”

Massachusetts Appellate Courts: Commonwealth vs. Daisy Obi

  • “Whether the judge’s further statement at the sentencing hearing i.e., You have to respect the rights of people. You have to respect the rights of people of the Muslim faith. You have to respect all people if intended by the judge to be a condition of probation, was enforceable.”

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