Islamophobic lawmaker shouts down interfaith gathering at state capitol

"If you don't have the freedom to leave a religion, is there a freedom of religion?"

Sen. Neal Tapio, center, poses uncomfortably with the interfaith gathering at the South Dakota Capitol. CREDIT: Twitter/Dana Ferguson, Argus Leader
Sen. Neal Tapio, center, poses uncomfortably with the interfaith gathering at the South Dakota Capitol. CREDIT: Twitter/Dana Ferguson, Argus Leader

South Dakota state Sen. Neal Tapio (R) created quite the scene at the capitol building in Pierre on Wednesday. After awkwardly agreeing to be photographed with an interfaith gathering, he turned on them, launching into one of his familiar rants attacking Islam and condemning the gathering as a “political movement.”

“I don’t like being called a racist,” he shouted at the group of religious leaders. “If you don’t have the freedom to leave a religion, is there a freedom of religion? …That’s the question we have to asks ourselves as a state.”

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When someone contradicted that claim, Tapio insisted, “When 14 Islamic countries kill you for leaving Islam, don’t you think we would want to keep those people out?”

As arguments played out over whether the lawmaker was, in fact, racist, the participants — still posing for pictures without Tapio, who was busy holding an impromptu press conference to share a series of racist thoughts — began singing “America the Beautiful” to try to drown out his ranting.

The gathering featured some 50 leaders from different religious denominations. Previously, the event was known as Lutheran Day, but this year, the Lutheran groups decided decided to expand to include representation from other Christian denominations, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism. Among the participants was Ismael Mulamba, who identifies as Muslim but joked that his mother had converted to Lutheran. He had also cited a Quran verse supporting the idea that someone cannot be forced to accept Islam, which translates to, “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion.” Tapio was not present for Mulamba’s comments.

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During the interfaith gathering, Tapio also held a concurrent ceremony in the capitol to honor a veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and was critically wounded, as well as the parents of a soldier killed in Iraq. It was after that ceremony that he encountered the interfaith group posing for their photo and the awkward incident took place.

Tapio had actually lambasted the event one day earlier, in a lengthy press release. In it, he accused the interfaith group of having “contempt for those Americans concerned about an endless war on terror,” reiterating his belief that Muslims predominantly believe people should be killed for leaving Islam.

“Patriotic Americans simply believe it is our responsibility to identify the real source of terror and to keep that hateful and deadly ideology out of the United States, out of South Dakota and out of our local communities,” he wrote. “While cultural messages of inclusiveness are important, I think it’s far more important that we respect the sacrifice and tremendous grief of South Dakota’s military families and those who have suffered so deeply in this ongoing war against Islamic terror, both at home and abroad.”

He went on to describe Islam as “a hateful and deadly ideology.”

Mohammed Sharif, director of the Islamic Center of Sioux Falls and a participant in this week’s interfaith gathering, pushed back against Tapio’s comments on Wednesday.

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“They might not like seeing us here, but we’re going to continue to be here, we will keep representing our communities,” he told the Argus Leader.

Tapio has made a habit out of commenting publicly about his unfounded fears regarding Islam. Last May, for example, he introduced prominent Islamophobe David Horowitz at a GOP Freedom Rally using the very same attacks on Islam that he rolled out on Wednesday.

“I want you to go home and I want you to look into what laws of apostasy and laws of blasphemy are,” he said. “…There are 14 countries in the world that will put you to death for what you believe, or what you say. Those values are antithetical to the values that are found in our Constitution.”