Lawmakers Bill Ketron, pictured, and Judd Matheny have removed religious references in their anti-terror bill./Tennessean
By Bob Smietana, The Tennessean
A proposed Tennessee law would make following the Islamic code known as Shariah law a felony, punishable by 15 years in jail.
State Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, and state Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, introduced the same bill in the Senate and House last week. It calls Shariah law a danger to homeland security and gives the attorney general authority to investigate complaints and decide who's practicing it.
It exempts peaceful practice of Islam but labels any adherence to Shariah law - which includes religious practices such as feet washing and prayers - as treasonous. It claims Shariah adherents want to replace the Constitution with their religious law.
A dozen other states are considering anti-Shariah bills, and there's a federal lawsuit in Oklahoma over one.
Imam Mohamed Ahmed of the Islamic Center of Nashville on 12th Avenue South said Islam teaches its followers to obey the law of the land. Shariah law, he said, teaches moral values.
"What do you mean, really, by saying I can't abide by Shariah law?" he said. "Shariah law is telling me don't steal. Do you want me to steal and rob a bank?"
The Attorney General's Office had no comment.
It is unclear whether the bill will go before lawmakers in its current form. The measure was filed Thursday to beat the deadline to introduce bills for the current session, Matheny said. It has not been assigned to a committee.
Matheny, the House speaker pro tempore, said he is concerned that aspects of Shariah law might conflict with the U.S. Constitution, but he does not intend to criminalize practices such as the preparations for prayer or dietary rules. He said he would consider amending the bill before asking the legislature to consider it.
"I'm still researching it," he said. "My intent is to educate and to look at it."
Most anti-Shariah bills in other states would ban courts from citing Shariah law. Oklahoma voters approved a referendum in November that banned state courts from using Shariah law in their rulings. A federal judge blocked the Oklahoma law from being implemented, pending a federal lawsuit claiming it is unconstitutional.
The Tennessee bill goes further by proposing criminal penalties for following Shariah. Matheny said the bill was model legislation, given to him by the Tennessean Eagle Forum, a conservative advocacy group.
Bobbie Patray, state president of the Eagle Forum, confirmed that the law had been drafted by David Yerushalmi, a Chandler, Ariz.-based attorney. Yerushalmi runs the Society of Americans for National Existence, a nonprofit that says following Shariah is treasonous.
He also has close ties to Frank Gaffney, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Security Policy, a key witness for the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against a mosque being built in Murfreesboro.
Backers, critics sound off
Rebecca Bynum, editor of the New English Review, a Nashville-based website that is critical of Islam, supports the bill.
"I applaud Senator Ketron for his effort to protect the citizens of Tennessee from the real and present danger presented by Shari'a and for the deep knowledge and thoughtful consideration that produced this bill," she wrote in an e-mail. "Even if this bill does not pass, it will have done our citizens a great service by provoking informed discussion of this issue."
Charles Haynes, a senior scholar with the First Amendment Center in Nashville, disagrees. He said the bill is based on a complete misunderstanding of Shariah law, which he described as a set of voluntary religious rules, similar to Catholic canon law or Jewish religious law.
The bill is wrongheaded, he said.
"It's complete nonsense," he said.
The bill also is unnecessary, Haynes said, because people of all faiths have to follow secular law.
"Civil law and the Constitution of the United States trumps religious law," he said. "The government can't label religious laws as wrong or treasonous or evil. The government may not take sides in religion. It may not say what is a good religion or a bad religion."
Selah Sbenaty, a member of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, said state legislators have bigger problems to worry about than Shariah law. He wishes they would spend more time trying to fix the state's economy and less time worrying about Islam.
"I believe this bill is a waste of our tax dollars, and I am sure the bill will not pass," he said. "The people of Tennessee are good, loving, hospitable, and do not tolerate bigotry."
The bill is SB 1028 in the Senate and HB 1353 in the House.