NASHVILLE - Tennessee's governor and state attorney general would have power to decide who and what groups constitute a "domestic terrorist entity" under a controversial bill moving in the General Assembly.
At least 200 Muslims packed the House and Senate Judiciary Committees and adjacent hallways on Tuesday, saying they fear the proposed Material Support to Designated Entities Act would unfairly target them.
But the legislation passed in both panels, with House Judiciary Committee members approving it on a 12-8 vote and their Senate counterparts later voting 6-3 in favor of it. Both versions now move on to their respective finance committees.
The bill originally sought to criminalize what critics said were extreme aspects of Sharia, the individual and social duties prescribed by Islam. But the bill has now been amended to remove any references to Sharia or religion.
"The offensive language that was in the original bill has been removed," said House Speaker Pro Tem Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, the bill's sponsor.
The bill's intent, he said, is "to protect Tennesseans, to empower local law enforcement, to preempt terrorist attacks so we don't have to pick up body parts after an event. It's to prevent an event from happening."
Designating a person or group as a "domestic terrorist entity" would be a civil procedure and would allow the state to freeze or block the entity's bank assets, he said.
Those contributing in spite of the designation could be subject to criminal penalties if the group commits a terrorist act. Matheny said there are adequate legal protections, but critics question that.
Zulfat Suara, a Nigerian Muslim who now makes her home and works as a certified public accountant in Bolivar, Tenn., said her greatest concern is the tremendous power top state officials will have to impose a designation that can destroy innocent lives.
"Two or three years later you're cleared, but the damage is already done," she said.
During the House hearing, Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, also fretted about the power of top officials.
"Isn't that the ultimate in truly Big Brother?" Lundberg said. "I like the intent. It just candidly scares me what we open up with this and what we potentially toss out."
Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, called the bill "un-American as far as I'm concerned. What we're saying here is that somebody in Tennessee, a regular person, can be declared a terrorist, and they have no right to a trial of their peers to clear their good name."
One of the bill's proponents, Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale, said the bill was "not about religion," however, he went on to criticize aspects of Islam in a lengthy speech.
"There are three parts to Sharia law that the majority of Americans do not understand," Womick said. "It's a political system that has at its center the goal to install Sharia law and its divine beliefs in every country in the world ... It is a legal system with a legal code enforced if necessary through militaristic or Jihadist methods. It is also a religion. That part of Sharia is protected by the First Amendment - the other two are not."
Imam Mohamed Ahmed with the Islamic Center of Nashville later spoke before the committee, calling the situation "very interesting" because proponents say it does not target any religion yet committee members had just listened for "20 minutes about Sharia law."
"I think we're facing double standards these days in the Muslim community," he said, comparing Muslims' situation to that of blacks in the past.