Sponsors propose amendment to Tenn. Shariah bill

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Opponents of legislation that would make it a felony to follow some versions of the Islamic code known as Shariah say a proposed amendment that strips out any reference to a specific religion would make the measure tougher to fight in court if it passes.

The original bill (S.B. 1028/H.B. 1353) gave the state’s attorney general authority to designate an entity a “Shariah organization” if he finds the group knowingly adheres to Shariah, which the legislation defines as “any rule, precept, instruction, or edict arising directly from the extant rulings of any of the authoritative schools of Islamic jurisprudence of Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanbali, Ja’afariya, or Salafi.”

Muslims, who say the original measure is too broad, fear it would outlaw central tenets of Islam, such as praying five times a day toward Mecca, abstaining from alcohol or fasting for Ramadan.

Gadeir Abbas, an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the original bill’s direct reference to Shariah made it easy to be challenged under the First Amendment, but the new version would change that.

“Now you really have to challenge it under like a due-process violation, saying that designating someone as a terrorist organization without a court proceeding is a due-process violation,” he said. “And it’s hard to do that without there being an actual sense of enforcement.”

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said the “amendment is a step in the right direction because it no longer targets one religious group,” but believes the legislation overall is unnecessary because it’s very similar to a law at the federal level.

“The federal government already has ample authority, through law enforcement, to identify and designate terrorist groups, to freeze their assets, and to prohibit individuals from providing virtually any kind of support to those groups,” she said. “This bill would not help to combat genuine threats to public safety, which the federal government already has the tools to do.”

Republican Senate sponsor Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro said the amendment reflects sponsors’ “original intention to prevent or deter violent or terrorist acts, but does so without any room for misinterpretation regarding the language’s effect on peaceful religious practices.”

“It basically just identifies any terrorist group … that may organize,” Ketron said.

Publicity over the bill and condemnation from religious rights groups isn’t likely to hurt Ketron, who represents a conservative district and has stirred controversy before with anti-immigration proposals that are among the harshest in the Legislature.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Judd Matheny of Tullahoma said he’s “received positive feedback regarding the revised amendment from those in my community who were concerned about the bill.”

Sponsors said the legislation builds on the Terrorism Prevention and Response Act of 2002 which passed the Tennessee General Assembly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

They said that law only addressed terrorist acts after they occurred by prescribing criminal penalties for those who are convicted under the act. But they said the proposed measure helps prevent terrorist behavior by cutting off the avenues of support that often enable the violence.

“The amendment provides a powerful counterterrorism tool to state and local law enforcement enabling them to act decisively before acts of terrorism are committed,” Matheny said. “We have to get it right every time, they only have to get it right once.”

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 the original Tennessee bill.

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