Today in Nashville lawmakers will hold hearings on SB 1028, a bill that makes it a felony in Tennessee to provide material support for terrorism. That’s already a federal crime, of course, but that’s hardly the point: The bill, introduced by State Sen. Bill Ketron and Rep. Judd Matheny, both Republicans, is the most radical of the more than two-dozen proposals nationwide to block the implementation of Islamic Shariah law on the unsuspecting citizenry. Now Ketron and Matheny are facing opposition from an unlikely source: the tea party.
According to William Coley, a member of the Knoxville Tea Party and a Muslim-American, his group will formally condemn the legislation at a press conference this morning, warning that the bill expands the powers of the police state while doing nothing to make Tennesseans any safer.
(Update: I’ve got a copy of the statement; it’s not a condemnation, but it’s hardly an endorsement either. Here’s the crux of it: “While the Knoxville Tea Party truly appreciates the sincere intentions behind SB1028, we do not feel that peaceful gatherings by ourselves, our friends, or neighbors is the problem, nor do we feel that increased surveillance by the State of Tennessee and intrusion into its citizens’ lives is the answer. The federal government already does far too much of that.”)
Last week, Coley says, he was thrown out of Rep. Matheny’s office, along with a coalition of Tennessee Muslim leaders, after a contentious exchange over the legislation. In his version of events, Coley told Matheny he and the Knoxville Tea Party would work to defeat the legislation. Matheny told him that if that happened, he’d simply introduce the bill again next year. That was too much for Coley: “I was just like, ‘Look, Bro, if you’re going to propose this bill again next year, this is just a waste of our time.’ This guy has forgotten he’s an elected official.’ I got up to leave and I said, ‘You don’t have job security and you will not be back again next year.'” (Coley does not live in Matheny’s district.)
According to Coley, Matheny was supported in the meeting by a representative of the Tennessee Eagle Forum, the local chapter of Phyllis Schlafly’s right-wing organization. It was the Eagle Forum that pushed for the Tennessee legislation originally, enlisting Arizona-based attorney David Yerushalmi’s help in drafting the bill. But Matheny’s argument that he has strong grassroots backing is misleading, Coley says, because the tea party is not fully on board. “Not the way Matheny is trying to make it look. Basically, when I told Matheny that, he told me he didn’t believe me. I told him ‘You can believe what you want; I’ve got the Knoxville Tea Party on speed dial—you can call them. I didn’t threaten him with bodily harm, I threatened him with removal from office.”
Coley’s opposition to the bill stemmed originally from its broad prohibition on adherence to Islamic law, which the text defined as fundamentally counter to the nation’s founding principles. As orginally written, the state could have punished observant Muslims like Coley with prison sentences for providing material support to any organization that supports Shariah—a local mosque, for instance. After the ensuing public outcry, the bill was modified substantially; previous references to Islam have been stricken, and the legislation now serves as a sort of replica of existing federal material support for terrorism statutes.
To the Knoxville Tea Party, that’s alarming for a totally new set of reasons. As Coley explains, “It’s the Patriot Act for the State of Tennessee!” He and fellow activists are concerned that the law as written would apply not only to conventional Islamic terrorist networks, but tea party groups as well, by giving the state power to investigate right-wing groups. As proof, they cite the 2009 Department of Homeland Security memo warning of a possible uptick in right-wing extremism, particularly among disaffected veterans. That report, commissioned by George W. Bush’s Department of Homeland Security, has become a rallying cry on the right.
Still, it’s unclear just how widespread tea party opposition to the anti-Shariah legislation is. Nationally, anti-Muslim politicians like Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) have been embraced by the movement, and the Knoxville group’s closest neighbors, the Smoky Mountain Tea Party Patriots, have supported the Tennessee measure. Coley tried to encourage members of that group to attend an informational presentation on Islam that he conducted at a local library, but the response was decidely negative. Coley, for his part, dismisses them as “a bunch of crazy extremists.”