ERIK SCHELZIG, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Haslam's administration is responding to what it calls "confusion" about the role of a Muslim staffer and a council that has advised two state departments on Islamic affairs.
The Republican governor was criticized this summer by several GOP groups over what they perceived as the growing influence of a version of the Islamic code called Shariah in state government.
Claude Ramsey, the deputy to the governor, sent a letter distributed to the state GOP's executive committee last week seeking to quell those concerns.
"I want to start by clearly expressing there is no effort by the Haslam administration, the State of Tennessee, or any agency or department of the State to promote or advance Shariah law or Shariah complaint finance," he said in the letter.
"The promotion or advancement of religious ideology is an inappropriate role of state government that is unacceptable, and will not happen during this administration."
Ramsey stressed the credentials of Samar Ali, who joined the state's Department of Economic and Community Development earlier this year, as "a bright, young Tennessean." He noted that she is a former student body president at Vanderbilt and a White House fellow, and that her brother has led the software team for NASA's Mars rovers.
"There is nothing about the Department or the position that involves Islamic financing or Shariah law," Ramsey said.
Concerns over the role of an American Muslim Advisory Council are also unfounded, Ramsey said. The members of the panel are not appointed by the governor or the Legislature and it has "no official status with the state, he said.
The Safety Department and the Department of Children's Services have nevertheless found it useful to consult with the panel on specific issues affecting the Muslim community, he said.
Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney, in forwarding the message to the executive committee, said he accepted Ramsey's explanation and urged members to share the letter with other party officials around the state.
"While the overarching issue of constitutional conflicts that concern some activists, including myself, is worthy of vigilance, I find this to be a more than satisfactory explanation," he said, "and firmly believe the administration when they say there is no effort by or on behalf of state government to promote or advance Shariah Law."
The Haslam administration's efforts to defuse grumbling among some fellow Republicans comes as Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, mulls a challenge to House Speaker Beth Harwell for the top leadership position in the House.
Tea party and gun rights groups have opposed Harwell since she was first elected speaker in 2010. Matheny in a recent interview complained of being marginalized because of his views on "our true constitutional principles," including greater gun rights and clamping down on what he sees as the spread of radical Islam.
He said he also wants the House to exert more power within the Republican-controlled state government. That message resonates with tea party groups like the 9.12 Project of Tennessee.
J. Lee Douglas, an organizer from Franklin, said in a recent email to fellow members that Harwell isn't aggressive enough about key issues.
"We must have someone leading our legislators who is less about compromise, less about the next election and someone who needs media approval less than he needs our approval and God's approval," he wrote in the email.
Matheny was a main sponsor of a 2011 bill that originally sought to make it a felony to follow Shariah. The proposal caused a national uproar, and hundreds of Muslims came to the Legislature to express fears it would outlaw central tenets of Islam, such as praying five times a day toward Mecca, abstaining from alcohol or fasting for Ramadan.
The measure ultimately enacted by the Legislature was watered down, and the references to specific religions were removed. Matheny argued at the time that the bill was aimed at eliminating support for terrorist groups.