Tennessee lawmakers stress that an expanded plan to fight “homegrown terrorism” has nothing to do with religion.
To prove it, they’ve crafted a bill that focuses not only on suspected radical Islamic fundamentalists or proponents of “Sharia Law,” but any group or individual in Tennessee suspected of harboring terrorist intentions or providing “material support” to groups “designated” by the government as potential terrorists.
Hundreds of Muslims who packed into Legislative Plaza Tuesday still beg to differ — although it was unclear whether they’d received a copy of the amendment, which at post time was not on the internet.
Members of the Muslim community jammed into two overflow committee rooms and a legislative lounge and lined the hallways to watch the House and Senate judiciary committees ultimately advance a measure that would give the administration power to identify terrorist entities and punish people who help them.
The original version of the bill specifically targeted people who practice Sharia Law, the foundation of Islamic Code. The two Republican sponsors have since given the bill a make-over by stripping any language about religion and instead widening the reach of the bill to anyone exhibiting potentially terrorist-like tendencies.
The current measure would allow the governor and the attorney general to label anyone as a terrorist if investigations from the state Department of Safety as well as the Office of Homeland Security suggest they are enough of a threat.
The 15-page “Material Support to Designated Entities Act of 2011” would ultimately fight “homegrown terrorism,” whether the state finds that threat in gangs, cults, religious groups or individuals, according to lawmakers carrying the bill.
However, no one group would be specifically targeted, according to Speaker Pro Tempore Judd Matheny who is sponsoring the measure, HB1353, in the House.
“I would just, please, like to implore the Muslim community, this is not against you,” said Matheny. “This is not a witch hunt. This is nothing but to protect ourselves where the federal government can’t or won’t.”
Members of the House Judiciary Committee approved the bill 12-4 while the measure won a 6-3 favorable vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Both measures now advance to the houses’ Finance, Ways and Means committees.
The problem is the bill doesn’t give enough of a recourse for people falsely accused of being or helping terrorists, said Rep. Mike Stewart, a Nashville Democrat.
“It’s un-American as far as I’m concerned,” said Stewart. “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. That’s just completely the opposite of what we should be doing in this country.”
Votes for the measure fell on mostly partisan lines, although in both chambers, one Democrat voted with Republicans in favor of the bill, and one GOP lawmaker voted with Democrats against it.
Rep. John Lundberg, R-Bristol, said he’s worried the move would give the governor’s office too much power to brand people — and ultimately groups — as terrorists or supporters of terrorists.
The measure feels a lot like the “Patriot Act Part Two for Tennessee,” said Sen. Stacey Campfield, a Knoxville Republican.
“I may be wrong, and by God I really hope I’m not, but for me at this time it’s a bridge too far,” he said.
Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee agrees, saying the language is much too vague and potentially unconstitutional.
Last year, the ACLU landed on the state’s Fusion Center tracking list — which monitors suspected terrorism and suspicious activities — for penning a letter about respecting religious preferences during the December holiday season. State officials later said the posting was a mistake.
Democrats like Rep. Gary Moore of Joelton and Sen. Tim Barnes of Adams, siding with Republicans, said they are comfortable with the bill as is, although Barnes expects to draft an amendment that would clear up language on due process rights for those accused of being mixed up with terrorism.
Barnes noted to sponsor Ketron that not nearly the outrage would have arisen had the legislation been dubbed the “Timothy McVeigh Bill,” rather than the “Sharia Bill.”
“You can’t put that toothpaste back in the tube, and that’s where we are now,” Barnes said. “This bill has evolved remarkably from where it started out.”
Mohamed Ahmed, an imam from the Islamic Center of Nashville, testified briefly before the House Judiciary committee, telling lawmakers the new version of the measure dwells on emotional blackmail and penalizes the Muslim community, but more than that, it violates the rights of all citizens.
“We believe in justice. We trust our representatives. We’re going to oppose the bill. We’re going to go all the way, Finance Committee, the Senate,” he told reporters after the hearing. “We’re not going to give up. This is not the end. This is the beginning, and we still have a very long way to go.”
Here’s what the measure would do, according to the latest draft adopted Tuesday:
- The Safety commissioner and state director of homeland security can investigate and recommend the governor and attorney general jointly label a person or group as a terrorists or a terrorist entity.
- Terrorists are defined as any person or group of two or more people with the capability and intent to engage in terrorist activity that threatens the security or safety of any U.S. resident.
- Terrorist activity, according to U.S. Code Section 1182, includes any unlawful activities which involve any of the following: highjacking or sabotage of an aircraft, vessel or vehicle; holding someone hostage to compel a third party to do or not do something; a violent attack on public officials or their families; or use of biological or chemical agents, explosives, or weapons to endanger people or cause substantial property damage for more than monetary gain.
- Anyone knowingly helping a person or group deemed a terrorist or terrorist group would be found guilty of a Class B felony, which would be upgraded to a Class A felony punishable by life in prison without possibility of parole if someone dies as a result of their material support.
- “Material support” means “any property, tangible or intangible, or service, including currency or monetary instruments or financial securities, financial services, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, safe houses, false documentation or identification, communications equipment, facilities, weapons, lethal substances, explosives, transportation, and personnel of one (1) or more individuals, including the entity itself; and does not include medicine or religious materials.”
- Seven days before the designation is made official, the individual or group of people shall be served a summons. The individual or group will then have seven additional days to challenge the classification before it is posted on the Secretary of State website and made public in major newspapers.
- Once the terrorist label becomes public, designees can seek a judicial review at the chancery court of Davidson County no more than 30 days after the designation kicks in.
- Any confidential information used by the administration to designate the person or people as terrorists will remain confidential but may be disclosed at the administrative review.
- A terrorist label can only be removed or blocked by a joint resolution of the General Assembly, a joint decision by the governor and the attorney general or by a court after a challenge by the designee.