A prospective candidate in South Dakota's U.S. House race is questioning the application of religious freedom to Muslims.
The freedom of religion has been constitutionally guaranteed to Americans for 227 years by the portion of the First Amendment that says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
But in a Friday press release, state Sen. Neal Tapio, a Republican from Watertown who has said he plans to enter the U.S. House race, questioned whether the First Amendment applies to the religion of Islam as practiced by adherents known as Muslims.
"Does our Constitution offer protections and rights to a person who believes in the full implementation of Islamic Law, as practiced by 14 Islamic countries and up to 350 [million] self-described Muslims, who believe in the deadly political ideology that believes you should be killed for leaving Islam?" Tapio wrote.
The lengthy press release was issued as part of Tapio's attempt to defend himself against what he described as unfair media coverage and unfair labeling of him as racist, extremist, xenophobic and Islamophobic.
When the Journal interviewed Tapio and asked him several times to say whether he supports religious freedom for American Muslims, he never said "yes" or "no." Instead, he spoke about Islamic radicalism and his desire to facilitate a public discussion about it.
One of the Journal's questions was whether Tapio wants to outlaw Islam.
“I don’t have that answer,” Tapio said. “I am simply asking necessary questions in order to lead a conversation.”
The Journal asked similar questions of the three major declared candidates in the race. In response to those questions posed in separate interviews, Dusty Johnson and Tim Bjorkman said they support the right of American Muslims to practice their religion. Shantel Krebs expressed support for religious freedom generally but avoided applying her answers specifically to Muslims.
Krebs is a Republican from Fort Pierre who is currently South Dakota’s secretary of state.
“We’re a country founded on freedom of religion, and that’s what the initial Founding Fathers fought for is freedom of religion,” she said in response to the Journal's first question.
Next, the Journal asked if religious freedom extends to Muslims. Krebs said, “This nation has the right to practice the religion of choice.”
The Journal then asked if Krebs wants to outlaw Islam. She reiterated her previous answers and said, “This country was founded upon and has fought for the freedom of religion.”
Finally, the Journal asked if the freedom of religion extends to the religion of Islam.
“Any religion,” Krebs replied.
The interview ended with her never having said "yes" or "no" to the question of whether she supports religious freedom specifically for Muslims.
Johnson, a Republican from Mitchell who formerly served as a public utilities commissioner and as chief of staff to Gov. Dennis Daugaard, said he “absolutely” supports the right of American Muslims to practice their religion.
“We live in dangerous times, and I know there are people across the globe and at home who hold extreme and un-American views,” Johnson said. “But I think we need to confront those threats with targeted, nuanced, intelligent solutions, and I think stereotyping all American Muslims is a great way to grab headlines, but a lousy way to keep us safe.”
Bjorkman, a Democrat and retired circuit court judge from Canistota, also expressed unconditional support for religious freedom.
“I totally repudiate any infringement on any American’s right to worship as he or she chooses,” Bjorkman said. “That is not only un-Christian, but it’s un-American.”
When the Journal asked Bjorkman to specify whether he supports religious freedom for American Muslims, he said “yes” and added that the First Amendment applies to “all peoples of all faiths and no faith at all.”
The four candidates are vying to succeed U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., who is running for governor instead of seeking re-election to the House. The primary election to choose each party’s nominee will be June 5, and the general election will be Nov. 6.
Recent media coverage of the race has mostly been in response to Tapio's public actions and statements. During the past several weeks, he criticized an opponent for being insufficiently committed to what he described as a national Muslim registry; proposed a legislative panel to evaluate the public costs of immigration and refugee resettlement; and went to an interfaith event at the state Capitol where he said the event’s organizers were using religious tolerance as a guise for suppressing open discussion of radical Islamic terrorism.
Hani Shafai, a Muslim and Rapid City resident, said he is concerned about Tapio's rhetoric. Shafai has hosted a fundraiser for Johnson and is scheduled to deliver a presentation about Islam on Friday to the Black Hills Press Club & Forum.
In a Journal interview, Shafai described himself as one of only a handful of Muslims in all of western South Dakota. Statewide, Muslims are estimated to make up less than 1 percent of the adult population.
Shafai has lived in Rapid City since emigrating from the Gaza Strip about 35 years ago.
"Islam as a faith is different than what some of the Muslims who are radicals are trying to portray it to be," Shafai said. "They basically have hijacked the faith for political reasons and other agenda things that don't have anything to do with the faith."