A proposed new state law would make following the Islamic legal code known as Shariah law a felony, punishable by 15 years in jail.
State Senator Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, introduced the bill, known as Senate Bill 1028, last week. A House version of the bill, House Bill 1353, was introduced by House Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma.
The bill claims that Shariah law is a danger to homeland security.
“The threat from Shariah-based jihad and terrorism presents a real and present danger to the lawful governance of this state and to the peaceful enjoyment of citizenship by the residents of this state,” the bill reads.
The bill exempts any peaceful practice of Islam.
But it also claims that any adherence to Shariah law – which includes religious practices like feet-washing and prayers – is treasonous.
It would require the state attorney general to investigate Shariah-compliant groups.
The Attorney General’s Office had no comment on the bill.
It’s too soon to say how far the bill will progress. Ketron and Matheny filed the measure on Thursday, the deadline for bill introductions, and it has not yet been assigned a date for a hearing. The legislation would have to clear legislative committees and win the support of both chambers and the governor before becoming law.
As leaders in the legislature, Ketron and Matheny would be well-placed to shepherd the measure through the General Assembly, but both have introduced an extensive slate of other bills.
Ketron, the Senate Republican Caucus chairman, is sponsoring 152 bills this year, including measures that would allow the sale of wine in grocery stores, require giving drivers’ license exams in English and expand immigration status checks by state and local police. Matheny, the House speaker pro tempore, is backing 36 bills, including ones dealing with firearms, health care and workers’ compensation.
A dozen other states are also considering anti-Shariah law bills. Most would ban courts from citing Shariah law.
Oklahoma voters approved a referendum in November that banned Oklahoma courts from using Shariah law in their rulings. A federal judge blocked the Oklahoma law from being implemented, pending a federal lawsuit claiming the law is unconstitutional.
Tennessee’s law goes further by proposing criminal penalties for following Shariah. The law resembles proposals from an anti-Islam group called the Society of Americans for National Existence, which advocates banning Shariah nationwide.
Rebecca Bynum, editor of the New English Review, a Nashville-based website that is critical of Islam, supports the bill.
“I applaud Senator Ketron for his effort to protect the citizens of Tennessee from the real and present danger presented by Shari’a and for the deep knowledge and thoughtful consideration that produced this bill,” she wrote in an email. “Even if this bill does not pass, it will have done our citizens a great service by provoking informed discussion of this issue.”
Charles Haynes, a senior scholar with the First Amendment Center, disagrees.
He said the law is based on a complete misunderstanding of Shariah law. He described it as a set of voluntary religious rules, similar to Catholic canon law or Jewish religious law.
The bill is wrongheaded, he said.
“It’s complete nonsense,” he said.
The bill is also unnecessary, said Haynes. He said that people of all faiths have to follow secular law.
“Civil law and the Constitution of the United State trumps religious law,” he said. “The government can’t label religious laws as wrong or treasonous or evil. The government may not take sides in religion. It may not say what is a good religion or a bad religion.”