NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee is considering making it a felony to follow some versions of the Islamic code known as Shariah, the most severe measure yet put forth by a national movement whose members believe extremist Muslims want Shariah to supersede the Constitution.
The bill – drawn up by conservatives with ties to opponents of a planned Islamic center two blocks from New York City's ground zero and efforts to expand a mosque 30 miles southeast of Nashville – would face steep constitutional hurdles if enacted.
Nevertheless, it represents the boldest legislative attempt yet to limit how Muslims worship.
Muslim groups fear the measure would outlaw central tenets of Islam, such as praying five times a day toward Mecca, abstaining from alcohol or fasting for Ramadan.
"This is an anti-Muslim bill that makes it illegal to be a Muslim in the state of Tennessee," said Remziya Suleyman, policy coordinator for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, which was among several civil rights and interfaith groups that held a news conference Tuesday to oppose the proposal.
Nadeem Siddiqi, a 35-year-old American Muslim entrepreneur who drove about 160 miles from Knoxville to attend the event, said Shariah governs his life.
As written, he said the proposal is "overly broad" and "basically includes all Muslims and all their practices as being illegal."
"Shariah is how I know how to fast in the month of Ramadan; how I wash before my prayers," he said. "It also directs me in how much charity I need to give to the poor. It orders me to be honest and fair in my business dealings."
The bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, said the proposal exempts the peaceful practice of Islam but seeks to condemn those "who take Shariah law to the other extreme." He said it would give state and local law enforcement officials "a powerful counterterrorism tool."
Ketron, who has successfully pushed through bills tightening restrictions on illegal immigrants, said he expects the Shariah measure will become law. He said he doesn't have a problem with Muslims and is open to talking with them about their concerns.
"My daughter went to the prom with a Muslim," Ketron said. "I want to hear from them."
For now, supporters of the measure are working to bolster it against any constitutional challenges, which may be an impossible task, said First Amendment Center scholar Charles Haynes, who called it a "really distorted understanding of Shariah law."
"The legislation would clearly be unconstitutional," he said. "Trying to separate out different parts of Islamic law for condemnation is nonsensical. Shariah law, like all religious law, is interpreted in a great many different ways."
Shariah is a set of core principles that most Muslims recognize as well as a series of rulings from religious scholars. It covers many areas of life and different sects have different versions of the code they follow.
At least 13 states have bills pending that would bar judges from considering Shariah in legal decisions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but none of those proposals is as strict as what Tennessee is weighing.
If the law is passed in Tennessee, it could face a legal challenge. The law passed in November by Oklahoma voters banning the use of Shariah law in state courtrooms was blocked by a federal judge pending the resolution of a lawsuit calling it unconstitutional.
Ketron said he and House Speaker Pro Tempore Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, were given the bill by the Tennessee Eagle Forum.
Eagle Forum state President Bobbie Patray said it was drafted by David Yerushalmi, an Arizona-based attorney who runs the Society of Americans for National Existence, a nonprofit that claims following Shariah is treasonous.
Yerushalmi has written for years in conservative media about what he calls the danger of Shariah and its central role in Islam. He has represented Pamela Geller, who leads the group Stop Islamization of America and is one of the most vocal critics of a planned Islamic center two blocks from New York City's ground zero.
Yerushalmi also represented Stop The Madrassa, a group that opposed a public school in Brooklyn established to teach Arabic language, culture and history. He is one of the contributors to the report "Shariah: The Threat To America" by the Center for Security Policy, a think tank led by Frank Gaffney, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.
Last year Gaffney testified at a court hearing on the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. The hearing was intended only to determine if local officials violated the state's open meetings law in approving the site plan, but the mosque's foes used the opportunity to argue it was part of a plot to expand Shariah law in the U.S.
Yerushalmi said the legislation in Tennessee is clear about who's being targeted.
"The legislation simply states that Shariah that follows the law of jihad, which calls for the violent overthrow of the Tennessee and U.S. government, is the Shariah that is at issue," he said.
Sarah Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Islamic Society of North America, disagreed.
"The way that it's worded makes the assumption that any practice of Islam is a practice of terrorism," she said. "And that's a dangerous line to walk. It excludes the millions of Muslims that are practicing peaceably from the ability to do so."
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said he plans to meet with the bill's sponsors to find out more about the proposal, but said he wants to ensure "that we're doing things that are welcoming people to Tennessee that are legally here."
Read SB1028/HB1353 at: http://www.legislature.state.tn.us/
Tennessee Eagle Forum: http://www.tneagleforum.org/
Society of Americans for National Existence: http://www.saneworks.us/indexnew.php
Center for Security Policy: http://www.centerforsecuritypolicy.org/index.xml