(Note: Updates, expands and replaces earlier post.)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A contentious proposal that would authorize the governor and attorney general to decide whether an entity is a terrorist organization advanced in the House on Tuesday after assurances from the sponsor that the measure does not target Muslims.
The legislation (HB1353) sponsored by Republican Speaker Pro Tempore Judd Matheny of Tullahoma passed the House Judiciary Committee 12-4 on Tuesday and now goes to the House Finance Committee.
The companion bill was approved later in the day, 6-3, by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The original proposal sought to make it a felony to follow some versions of the Islamic code known as Shariah, but the measure was later amended to strip out any reference to a specific religion.
Opponents are concerned some organizations may be unfairly targeted, particularly Muslims. Hundreds of them were at the legislative office complex at the Tennessee Capitol on Tuesday to show their displeasure for the proposal.
At least two overflow rooms were set up in the Legislative Plaza for the Muslims to watch the hearing, which was emotional at times. Republican Chairman Eric Watson of Cleveland scolded some audience members when they muttered their disapproval during parts of the debate, but later commended the audience for being peaceful.
Matheny, who was criticized last week for having representatives of interfaith groups — including some Muslims — who had come to discuss the proposal removed from his office by state troopers, said the bill “treats everybody equally.”
“I want to say to the Muslim community this bill is not against you,” Matheny said Tuesday.
In the original proposal, the state’s attorney general would have authority to designate an entity a “Shariah organization” if he finds the group knowingly adheres to Shariah, which the legislation defined 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 said the original measure was too broad, feared it would outlaw central tenets of Islam, such as praying five times a day toward Mecca, abstaining from alcohol or fasting for Ramadan.
As amended, the proposal would authorize the governor and attorney general to designate an entity “a domestic terrorist” or “a foreign terrorist organization.”
Committee member Rick Womick, an airline pilot and U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, said he began studying Islam and its code known as Shariah after 9/11, when he was flying a commercial airline the morning of the attacks. He said the legislation is needed.
“This bill focuses on prevention,” said the Murfreesboro Republican, who became visibly emotional when recalling the events of that day in 2001. “It’s about equipping our state and local law enforcement with tools to act before acts of terrorism.”
Critics said an entity — which under the new bill is defined as “an individual” or conspiring by “two or more individuals” — could be unfairly targeted and that the measure lacks adequate due process.
“If someone convinces the attorney general that I’m a terrorist, then how do I get out of that,” asked Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Stewart.
Matheny said the legislation, which mirrors a federal law, actually has more due process than the higher-level statute. For instance, he said there’s a seven-day period before the designation takes effect, while it’s immediate in the federal law.
Before making the designation, he said the governor and attorney general also base their decisions on “factual information given to them by law enforcement.”
“It only penalizes people who know they’re dealing with a terrorist organization and who knowingly support that organization,” Matheny said after the vote.
Mohamed Ahmed, adviser for the Islamic Center of Nashville and one of the main organizers of the Muslims who have been attending the hearings, said the legislation, even though amended, still needs to be withdrawn.
“We’re not going to give up,” he said. “We still have a long way to go.”
Richard Lambert is a special agent in charge of the Knoxville field office of the FBI. He didn’t have a position on the legislation, but he told The Associated Press earlier Tuesday by phone that the agency has a partnership with Muslims in the fight against terrorism.
“We view the Muslim community in Knoxville as one of our primary allies countering this threat that we face from violent extremism,” he said.