March 25, 2011
Sponsors of a Tennessee material support bill introduced an amendment removing all references to religion from the bill on March 22, 2011. The change comes after widespread criticism that the original bill was unconstitutional and duplicative of the federal statutes. In a statement released by the bill’s sponsor, the new version removes language that described sharia law as a threat to residents of Tennessee and makes clear that peaceful religious practices would not be considered a violation.
Several civil rights and interfaith groups opposing a proposed “material support” bill in Tennessee held a news conference (video) in Nashville on March 1, 2011. The bill mirrors the federal ban on material support for a designated terrorist organization but also permits the state’s attorney general to designate “Sharia organizations” as terrorist groups. Opponents of the bill say it would violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments and could be used to harass or intimidate individuals and organizations because of their religious beliefs.
“It's simply an unnecessary piece of legislation. We all live and abide by the same secular laws of the land, and no religious or faith law changes that," said Rev. Dan Rosemergy with the Interfaith Alliance.
The bill defines "Sharia organizations" as “two (2) or more persons conspiring to support, or acting in concert in support of, sharia or in furtherance of the imposition of sharia within any state or territory of the United States.” Anyone who provides support to a designated sharia organization could have their assets frozen indefinitely and face up to 15 years in jail.
The bill defines sharia as “the set of rules, precepts, instructions, or edicts which are said to emanate directly or indirectly from the god of Allah or the prophet Mohammed and which include directly or indirectly the encouragement of any person to support the abrogation, destruction, or violation of the United States or Tennessee Constitutions, or the destruction of the national existence of the United States or the sovereignty of this state, and which includes among other methods to achieve these ends, the likely use of imminent violence.”
At the press conference, opponents of the bill described its scope as excessively broad and vague. “Sharia law is how I know how to fast in the month of Ramadan; how I wash before my prayers,” said Nadeem Siddiqui. “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 legislation would have to clear legislative committees and win the support of both chambers and the governor before becoming law. Charles Haynes, a legal expert at the First Amendment Center, said that if the bill were to pass it was unlikely to hold up to judicial scrutiny. “The legislation would clearly be unconstitutional,” he said. "Trying to separate out different parts of Islamic law for condemnation is nonsensical. Sharia law, like all religious law, is interpreted in a great many different ways."
Bill Ketron, the state legislator who introduced the bill in February, said the bill would exempt the peaceful practice of Islam but targets those “who take sharia law to the other extreme.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations sponsored the press conference that featured speakers from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Interfaith Alliance, the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition and other groups.