Earlier this year, lawmakers in Tennessee introduced the most expansive anti-sharia law bill yet. Anti-sharia law bills proposed in over a dozen other states seek to ban Islamic law from US courts, despite a federal judge blocking such an amendment in Oklahoma last year. Tennessee’s bill took a step further by proposing to allow the attorney general to designate groups of two or more people who adhere to sharia law as “sharia organizations”, and making the act of knowingly providing material support or resources to such organizations a crime punishable with 15 years in prison.
The bill’s absurdly broad and prejudiced reading of adherence to sharia law as criminal behavior was extremely problematic for American Muslims, since the centuries-old legal system covers central religious practices and aspects of everyday life, such as diet and prayer. After widespread opposition, the bill was purged of any reference to sharia law, Islam, or Muslims. However, civil rights groups feel that the amended version is just as harmful, and still targets Muslim communities.
Remziya Suleyman, Policy Coordinator at the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said the bill has a very political agenda and raises huge concerns about due process rights and other constitutional violations.
The amended bill would give the state’s governor and attorney general authority to designate any group as a terrorist organization. While the bill’s co-sponsors insist that the proposed law is a preventative measure that has nothing to do with religion, some lawmakers spoke disparagingly about Islam at length during a judiciary committee hearing on the bill. Furthermore, one of the sponsors’ witnesses, Ltc. Joseph Myers, implicated a mosque in Knoxville as well as Muslim student groups at the University of Tennessee and Vanderbilt University as organizations that the bill would authorize officials to designate as threats during his testimony.
“If there’s a terrorist organization in Tennessee, we shouldn’t be playing around with designations. You should go ahead and arrest people, shut down the organization, and charge them with crimes. Why are we playing with designations?” said Gadeir Abbas, staff attorney at the Council on American Islamic Relations. “The reason is because they want to circumvent the judicial system because they are targeting organizations that are lawful that are not susceptible to criminal indictments because they’re not doing anything wrong. They are trying to create a new infrastructure for targeting them.”
It is also disputed if the bill is necessary given that there are already quite expansive federal statues on providing material support to terrorists, that have led to widely questioned convictions. Abbas argues that Tennessee’s bill would allow individuals to be prosecuted for material support absent an actual crime.
“In the federal statute, you have to prove that there has been a crime. In the Tennessee [bill], it doesn’t require proof of any crime. It’s simply the opinion of two men or women, the attorney general and the governor, that this organization is a terrorist organization,” Abbas said.
The bill has passed judiciary committees in both chambers but must pass several other committees before it can be voted on to become law. Tennessee’s legislative session is expected to end in a few weeks.