DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Tennessee's Republican governor has been on the defensive recently. He has been forced to explain why he hired a Muslim staffer. There is also a Republican congresswoman in Tennessee who is being told that she's not critical enough of Islamic Sharia law. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN has this report from Nashville.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: A crude analogy, perhaps, but a group of Republicans feels the country has a cavity. They're trying to drill it out.
LEE DOUGLAS: You doing, OK, sweetheart?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Mm-hmm.
FARMER: Lee Douglas is tinkering with a real cavity. He's a dentist by day, anti-Sharia law activist by night.
DOUGLAS: By stopping this now, we're going to save ourselves a lot of difficulty in the future.
FARMER: Douglas sees an infiltration of Islam in government. Locally, he points to a Muslim woman hired in Tennessee's economic development office. Douglas helped draft a resolution criticizing the governor and Islam. A version of the document has been signed by a growing list of GOP executive committees, from rural counties to the state's wealthiest.
Republican Governor Bill Haslam has stopped short of condemnation. He defends his Muslim staffer's credentials and says she grew up in a small town.
GOVERNOR BILL HASLAM: This is somebody that's very Tennessee.
FARMER: The fact that she's a fellow Tennessean hasn't silenced the critics. The number of Muslims in Tennessee remains tiny, but it is growing. Many come as refugees. Others are college professors. They're planting roots in one of only three states where, according to a Pew Forum survey, more than half the population is evangelical Protestant.
Dentist Lee Douglas believes Islam is diametrically opposed to his faith.
DOUGLAS: I don't want anybody to persecute any religion, including Islam. But we have a duty as Americans to understand that they intend to take us over and to compel us to become Islamic.
FARMER: When you talk about the freedom of religion in the First Amendment, the way I'm hearing you describe it, it almost sounds like you're saying it's not necessarily the freedom to practice all religions.
DOUGLAS: Our government is showing a deference and is accommodating one single religion - Islam, Sharia.
FARMER: Douglas says the deference should be shown toward the religion of the country's Founding Fathers. Instead, Douglas sees the Justice Department making sure a mosque in nearby Murfreesboro could open despite legal challenges.
Rebin Omer attended the first prayers at that mosque. The Kurdish refugee dismisses claims that Islam is violent.
REBIN OMER: We haven't seen anything like that from our upbringing or anything, so it's kind of surprising. But the First Amendment gives you the right to worship any religion you want.
FARMER: As one of a thousand mosques built in the U.S. over the last decade, this Islamic center ignited debate across the country and political spectrum - from pulpit pastors to wealthy Republican donors.
Health care investor Andy Miller tries to isolate his concerns to the moral code laid out in Muslim holy books. He finds discrimination toward women.
ANDY MILLER: I am not anti-Muslim at all. That's - I don't hate anybody. But I do have issues with Sharia law. When you look at Sharia law, it's so antithetical to the things that we hold dear as Americans.
FARMER: This year Miller pumped a couple hundred thousand dollars into superPACs supporting a candidate who shares his views. Lou Ann Zelenik made Islam a campaign issue in both of her failed but fiery bids for Congress.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
LOU ANN ZELENIK: I stood up when my opponents were silent against the political agenda of radical Islam...
FARMER: While Zelenik lost to Rep. Diane Black again in last month's Republican primary, Black felt pressure to show toughness.
REPRESENTATIVE DIANE BLACK: I understand the devastation that Sharia law could mean here in our country. And I'm sponsor of a bill that will once again say that the United States Constitution is our law and that it is the supreme law.
FARMER: Besides the federal legislation, more than 20 states have considered bills banning the use of Sharia law. The proposals are a solution in search of a problem, according to many. But to the anti-Sharia crowd, they're another way to get their fears taken seriously.
For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.