It isn't a crime to practice Islam in the United States of America.
At least, not yet.
On Monday (March 14), Missouri state Rep. Don Wells introduced a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at blocking Sharia -- the Islamic legal code -- from being used in state courts. Another Missouri lawmaker introduced a bill to ban the use of any foreign laws in state courtrooms.
Wells said he introduced the Sharia ban out of concern that there is a global push to accept Islamic laws that he views as oppressive to women and as calling for violent punishment for minor offenses.
"I think it's just absolutely a guarantee to my children and grandchildren that in the future they will live under the same laws that I grew up under," Wells told The Associated Press.
Earlier this month, Tennessee lawmakers began consideration of a bill that would make the practice of Sharia law a felony. The bill was introduced by conservative legislators with ties to ongoing efforts to block the construction of an Islamic center near Ground Zero in New York City and the expansion of a mosque near Nashville.
Similar laws have been proposed in a dozen other states, including Oklahoma, where last November voters approved a constitutional amendment banning the use of Shariah law in state courts. That ban has since been challenged as unconstitutional in federal court.
The moves come amidst controversy over congressional hearings on the spread of "radical" Islam in the United States. Proponents say their efforts are a reaction to what they see as a move to have Sharia supersede U.S. civil law.
But critics say those efforts amount to little more than blatant anti-Muslim bigotry and fly in the face of the First Amendment's protection of the "free exercise" of religion.
Some called the congressional hearings a "witch hunt" and compared them to those convened by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1940s and `50s to ferret out Communists and their sympathizers.
"Today, millions of Muslim Americans are subjected to thoughtless generalizations, open discrimination, and outright hostility because of a tiny minority whose acts of violence deny the teachings of the Quran and are denounced by other Muslims," said the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches.
A poll last August by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that Americans remain deeply conflicted about their opinions of Islam in the U.S. The study found that only 30 percent hold a "favorable" opinion of Islam, a drop of more than 10 percent since 2005.
Thirty-five percent of those surveyed said they believed Islam "encouraged" violence compared to other religions, while 42 percent said it did not, according to the Pew poll.
Testifying at the hearings convened by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to Congress, conceded that some individuals, "including some who are Muslims, are violent extremists."
"However," he added, "these are individuals, not entire communities. When you assign their violent actions to the entire community, you assign collective blame to a whole group. This is the very heart of stereotyping and scapegoating."
Sharia is a set of guiding principles derived from the Quran, which were then interpreted over centuries by Islamic religious scholars. Sharia addresses a broad spectrum of issues, from crime and economics to hygiene and sexuality. While most Muslims accept Sharia as sacred, its interpretation and application vary widely depending on religious, cultural and geographic points of view.
Viewing Sharia as one set entity is akin to viewing the Bible and Christians' interpretation thereof as a singular thing. There are as many ways to view the Bible and its teachings (and laws) as there are Christians.
American Islam, like American Christianity, is not a monolith.
"It's anything but," Syracuse University professor Gustav Niebuhr, author of "Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America," told the PBS program "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly" recently. "There are people who are wealthy. There are people who are white-collar. There are all sorts of professionals. There are blue-collar people. There are people who have been here since the 1960s, people who've recently arrived.
"At the very time that you've got people fighting for freedom and human rights in North Africa, you have internationally televised hearings questioning the patriotism of at least some American Muslims," Niebuhr said. "What's hopeful is that people ... have stood with Muslims -- and stood with Muslims as Americans -- in this country. And I hope that the latter is received more strongly than the former, at least for American interests abroad."
This was published originally via the Religion News Service.
Follow Cathleen Falsani on Twitter: www.twitter.com/godgrrl