March 3, 2011 — -- An uproar has erupted in Tennessee over the most far-reaching proposal in the nation against the Islamic religious law known as Shariah.
The legislation would make practicing some versions of Shariah a felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The bill declares that Shariah is a threat to homeland security because it embraces jihad and "requires" followers to overthrow the U.S. government.
Shariah -- which means "path" in Arabic – governs many aspects of Muslim life and influences the legal code in a majority of Muslim countries. But there are many interpretations of Shariah.
In some countries, strict interpretations "are used to justify cruel punishments such as amputation and stoning as well as unequal treatment of women in inheritance, dress and independence," according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
Radical Islamist groups, such as al Qaeda, go further, claiming that Shariah justifies jihad, or holy war.
But Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders in Tennessee said the bill is so broadly written that it would make it illegal to be a Muslim. They held a news conference in Nashville Tuesday to denounce the proposed state measure as an attack on religious freedom.
Conservative groups, such as the Tennessee Eagle Forum, back the bill, which has a high-profile sponsor in Rep. Judd Matheny, the state's Republican House speaker pro tempore. They said Muslims who peacefully practice their religion have nothing to fear.
Lawmakers in at least 13 states have introduced proposals forbidding local judges from considering Shariah when rendering decisions in such matters as child-custody disputes and divorces. Voters in Oklahoma approved such a law last fall, but a federal judge has temporarily blocked it from taking effect.
The Tennessee legislation goes much further, critics say, potentially making the practice of Sharia – and Islam itself -- illegal.
Charles Haynes, a senior scholar with the Nashville-based First Amendment Center, said the legislation defines Sharia in a harsh way that "only a very small minority of Muslims would agree with."
"It's an attempt to demonize an entire religion because of how some radical Islamists interpret Shariah. It's wrong-headed and unconstitutional," he said.
He added that the law also is unnecessary: "If there were Muslims in the U.S. that interpreted Shariah law in some extreme way, they already are prohibited from violating our laws. There is no need for special legislation to prohibit people from being violent."
The bill's sponsor in the Tennessee state Senate, Bill Ketron, a Republican from Murfreesboro, acknowledged in a telephone interview that the initial version of the legislation could have been better worded.
He said the bill is being amended so as not to punish Muslims who practice "peaceful religious traditions that do not affect the health and safety of the residents of the state."
He disputed arguments that existing laws provide sufficient protections against radical Islamists plotting mayhem in Tennessee.
"This is providing the tools for our law enforcement here in Tennessee to protect not only the citizens, but those peaceful worshipping Muslims who do not interpret Shariah in an extremist manner as to call for jihad … I ask that they stand on our side."