The Legislature spent months flirting with ideas for broadening the power of the state to designate groups and individuals as suspected terrorist and punish people who provide them with “material support.”
But in the final days of the session, lawmakers voted simply to toughen existing penalties in the law after dropping provisions that drew global attention and allegations that Tennessee planned to target people based on their religion.
The issue galvanized Tennessee’s Muslim community, with so many supporters and practitioners of Islam and defenders of “Sharia Law” descending on Legislative Plaza that meetings at times had to be broadcast in multiple overflow-rooms — and many still, for lack of available seating, were left sitting on the floors to watch closed-circuit monitors.
Proponents say they’re happy with the final form of the bill, which awaits the governor’s signature, while Muslim activists, civil libertarians and other critics are breathing easier with many of the most worrisome elements of the bill scrapped — including specific mention of “Sharia Law” and dramatic expansion of the government’s power to designate people as terrorists and to punish those who in any way support them.
“It’s a sigh of relief knowing that the most controversial and most dangerous portions of the bill ultimately came out,” said activist Remziya Suleyman, policy coordinator for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, which opposed the bill.
Under the bill that passed, material support of terrorists would bring the same punishment as manslaughter, sexual crimes, burglary and drug crimes — a 15- to 60-year jail sentence and up to a $50,000 fine. The crime would be a Class A felony, more serious than the current Class B designation, punishable with eight to 30 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. The more serious punishment would cost an average of $369,000 per inmate.
The plan is less far-reaching than what Sen. Bill Ketron originally proposed, but the Murfreesboro Republican said he’s satisfied with the final product.
Wrote Ketron in his hometown newspaper at the conclusion of the session last month:
There is no prosperity in Tennessee without security. Despite the best efforts of many to thwart legislation to strengthen our laws against homegrown terrorism, we succeeded in passing an anti-terrorism bill, which I sponsored, that updates Tennessee’s Terrorism Prevention Act that was passed shortly after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. There has been much misinformation published regarding this bill. The “Material Support to Designated Entities Act of 2011” simply makes the provision of “material support” a Class A felony and helps to close the prevention gap left by the 2002 statute. This will help give our local law enforcement agencies the tools they need to prevent homegrown terrorism.
“It was not just to protect our citizens. It was very clear it was targeting the Muslims,” Mohamed Ahmed, an imam at the center, told TNReport. “Is there anyone proposing a bill saying we’re going to damn the Jewish law? Of course not.”
“The bill as first drafted was very troubling, mean-spirited and ripe with constitutional problems,” said Hedi Weinberg, executive director of the state’s ACLU chapter. “The bill that passed essentially was gutted.”
In addition to prompting outrage in the Muslim community, Ketron’s plan hit snags with vocal members of his own party who refused to go along with it. First, because it seemed to single out a religious minority, then later because they felt it gave the governor and the attorney general too much power — outside the constitutionally established realms of due process in criminal court — in allowing them to ID individuals and groups as potential terrorists.
Among them was Republican Sen. Stacey Campfield, who called the bill a “Patriot Act Part Two for Tennessee.”
“I felt it could have led to targeting of groups that may not be guilty, but only unpopular at this time,” Campfield later said on the Senate floor. “As they come out for Muslims today, they could come out for the Tea Party tomorrow or the Republicans the next day or the Democrats the day after that.”
Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, said the bill, prior to being dramatically reined-in, had disturbing “Big Brother” implications. Lundberg quietly promised he’d loudly oppose the bill on the House floor if the sponsors tried to run a version that he believed would legitimize the violation of people’s rights.
They didn’t. The next time the bill appeared before the Legislature, it had been scrubbed down to a version most all could support — or at least no longer passionately oppose.
“It looks decent,” said Ahmed who originally planned on challenging the earlier versions through the legal system had they passed but has since dropped that idea. “Don’t forget the original intent of the bill. It was not just to protect our citizens. It was very clear it was targeting the Muslims.”
Lundberg called the evolution of the bill “frankly, a pretty ugly process.”
“My concerns before were, were we targeting religion? Number two, then, we became ‘Big Brother,’ and we gave incredible power to a couple of people in this state,” Lundberg said on the floor before the vote. “This takes it back.”
Although a majority of Democrats opposed earlier versions of the bill, they aren’t taking credit for it’s paired down final version — it was the Republicans policing themselves, said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner.
“I think they were trying to play to a certain segment of their party and I think that it might have backfired on them,” he told reporters.
Indeed, once the “Sharia Law” aspects of the bill disappeared, some Democrats began to warm to the measure. Sen. Tim Barnes and Reps. Eddie Bass and Gary Moore voted for what Lundberg described as the “Big Brother” version in their respective chambers’ judiciary committees.
Sen. Barnes, D-Adams, remarked that if from the outset the measure had been dubbed the “Timothy McVeigh Bill,” rather than the “Sharia Bill,” not nearly so much outrage would likely have ensued.
Campfield, who unlike Barnes voted against Ketron’s bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee, later noted that the debate brought to light the “weird divide” among tea-party conservatives.
“You had the people who didn’t want a whole bunch of government intrusion sort of competing against people who are strong on national security. A lot of times those are the same people,” Campfield told TNReport. “It was sort of a weird split that was going on at the time, but I think both sides are happy with what came out.”
The final version was hashed out behind closed doors between bill sponsors and high-level administrators in the Department of Safety and Office of Homeland Security. They stripped down the bill, deleting provisions that would have let the governor and attorney general designate possible terrorists and deny the accused the right to fight the classification before an administrative law judge.
They agreed to give the existing law more teeth and allowed for local district attorneys to report suspicions directly to the Department of State, which handles terrorist designations, instead of reporting to the FBI.
“We are pleased with the final version, which enhances the existing state penalty for groups or individuals who support terrorist organizations,” Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons said in an emailed statement.
“I like where the bill ended, quite frankly,” Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters. “I wasn’t quite sure why the governor and the attorney general had those roles in terms of whether that was appropriate.”
Still, some Democratic lawmakers held out, saying they still felt the measure got off on the wrong foot and they ultimately wanted no part of it in any way, shape or form.
“I am very concerned of the fact that we are demonizing certain people or putting a stigma on certain people because of their religion,” said Sen. Beverly Marrero, a Memphis Democrat who voted against the bill. “I believe so strongly that America is a place where people came for freedom of religion, I really want to speak up for people who feel like they are being prosecuted because of their religious beliefs.”
Also voting “No” in the Senate were Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis and Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, the Tennessee General Assembly’s longest serving member.
The measure passed overwhelmingly in both chambers, on a 26-3 vote in the Senate and 76-16 in the House. No Republicans in either chamber opposed the final version. Haslam is expected to sign the bill.