NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP/The Blaze) — The Tennessee state legislature is considering making it a felony to follow some versions of the Islamic code known as Shariah, the most stringent measure yet aimed at limiting the expansion of the religious code in superseding civic law. The bill faces steep constitutional hurdles, but the measure's proponents are confident it will become law.
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.
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.
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."
"It's unconstitutional to even suggest that such legislation should be passed," 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.
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."
The local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is also speaking out against the measure, claiming the bill would make it illegal to be Muslim in Tennessee. "All of a sudden, I pray using the Koran or the Sunnas of the Prophet, and it's a crime," claimed Imam Yusuf Abdullah of Masjid Al-Islam in Nashville. "What kind of bill is that?"
On Thursday, controversial Muslim cleric Anjem Choudary is leading a march in support of Shariah at the White House in Washington, D.C. "the Muslims will let the tyrant Barack Obama and the American people know that a new constitution beckons the US called the Shari’ah, and that this worldwide revolution will see it implemented inshaa’allah (God willing) very very soon," the march's website states. (Click here for complete coverage from The Blaze)