- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 1, 2011

NASHVILLE, Tenn. | Tennessee is considering making it a felony to follow some versions of the Islamic code known as Shariah, the most severe measure yet put forth by a national movement whose members believe extremist Muslims want Shariah to supersede the Constitution.

The bill — drawn up by conservatives with ties to opponents of a planned Islamic center two blocks from New York City’s ground zero and efforts to expand a mosque 30 miles southeast of Nashville — would face steep constitutional hurdles if enacted.

Nevertheless, it represents the boldest legislative attempt yet to limit how Muslims worship.

Muslim groups fear the measure would outlaw central tenets of Islam, such as praying five times a day while facing toward Mecca, abstaining from alcohol or fasting for Ramadan.

“This is an anti-Muslim bill that makes it illegal to be a Muslim in the state of Tennessee,” said Remziya Suleyman, policy coordinator for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, which was among several civil rights and interfaith groups that held a news conference Tuesday to oppose the proposal.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, said the proposal exempts the peaceful practice of Islam but seeks to condemn those “who take Shariah law to the other extreme.” He said it would give state and local law enforcement officials “a powerful counterterrorism tool.”

Mr. Ketron, who has successfully pushed through bills tightening restrictions on illegal immigrants, said he expects the Shariah measure will become law.

For now, supporters of the measure are working to bolster it against any constitutional challenges, which may be an impossible task, said First Amendment Center scholar Charles Haynes, who called it a “really distorted understanding of Shariah law.”

“Trying to separate out different parts of Islamic law for condemnation is nonsensical. Shariah law, like all religious law, is interpreted in a great many different ways,” he said.

Shariah is a set of core principles that most Muslims recognize as well as a series of rulings from religious scholars. It covers many areas of life and different sects have different versions of the code they follow.

At least 13 states have bills pending that would bar judges from considering Shariah in legal decisions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but none of those proposals is as strict as what Tennessee is weighing.

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