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Tim Pawlenty: I shut down Sharia loan program

Former Minnesota Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Win McNamee/Getty Images

The American Prospect on Friday published a story suggesting that likely Republican presidential candidate and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty had worked "to increase minority homeownership by encouraging companies to offer Sharia-compliant mortgages."

The story claims that Pawlenty's push to increase minority homeownership while Minnesota governor led to the creation of "culturally sensitive" financing programs that helped Muslims avoid paying interest on home loans. Many Muslims who follow Sharia law, or strict Islamic law, believe they are not permitted to pay or charge interest.

Asked about the story, Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant said that Pawlenty did not encourage the Sharia loan program. To the contrary, Conant said, Pawlenty ended it once he found out it existed.

"This program was independently set up by the MN state housing agency and did not make any mention Sharia Law on its face, but was later described as accommodating it," he said in an email. "As soon as Gov. Pawlenty became aware of the issue, he personally ordered it shut it down. Fortunately, only about three people actually used the program before it was terminated at the Governor's direction."

For a GOP presidential candidate, any association with Sharia law is politically perilous: More than a dozen states are considering banning Sharia, which some conservatives fear being imposed on America. 

Two weeks ago, former Sen. Rick Santorum, who will likely be one of Pawlenty's rivals in the fight for the Republican nomination, called Sharia "evil" and "incompatible with American jurisprudence and our Constitution." Another likely rival, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, said last year that "[w]e should have a federal law that says Sharia law cannot be recognized by any court in the United States." 

The fears of Sharia have been fanned by Fox News and conservative talk radio and websites, and they seemed to grow in conjunction with the controversy over the planned New York Islamic center that came to be known as the "Ground Zero mosque." Last August, Dick Morris said on Fox News that the cultural center will be used to "train and recruit Sharia law advocates who become terrorists."

Earlier this week in Florida, a judge ruled that a Sharia law could govern a civil dispute over a mosque between Muslims, likely generating more debate around the issue. (Florida is one of the states with anti-Sharia legislation under consideration.)  As it turns out, U.S. courts regularly recognize religious-based contracts (whether Islamic, Jewish, Christian or anything else) so long as they don't violate state or federal law.

But with conservatives warning that America is at risk of coming under the control of Sharia, the story tying Pawlenty to the Sharia-compliant home loan program amounted to a headache for the former governor. Conant, his spokesman, told Ben Smith that the former governor does not believe Sharia or any other religious law should hold sway in America.

"The United States should be governed by the U.S. Constitution, not religious laws," he said.

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