What’s Going on in Tennessee? Teaching Islam in Public Schools

A Tennessee lawmaker has introduced a bill into the state legislature to prevent courses containing “religious doctrine” from being taught before tenth grade. The bill is in reaction to objections by parents to a three-week curriculum under the topic of world religion for middle-school students that covers the “Five Pillars of Islam.”

The bill is the result of a grass-roots campaign by parents reacting to course requirements that obligated their children to write assignments about Islamic principles of faith, such as “Allah is the only God.” Parents have called it indoctrination.

Parents particularly objected that no other religion was taught at the same time, and that the amount of time spent on Islam was considerably more than that which will be spent on Christianity, Buddism, Hinduism and other religions.

The bill also states that any teaching of "comparative religion" does not focus on one religion more than another.

Rep. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia, who introduced the bill, agrees. "I think that probably the teaching that is going on right now in seventh, eighth grade is not age appropriate," said Butt. "They are not able to discern a lot of times whether its indoctrination or whether they're learning about what a religion teaches."

The parents asked for help from the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a law firm that addresses constitutional and human rights worldwide. In the course of its investigation, ACLJ ask to looked at the teaching materials from the course but school districts refused to hand them over.

Tennessee law states that the Bible may be used in class, as long as the course doesn't include the "teaching of religious doctrine or sectarian interpretation of the Bible or of texts from other religious or cultural traditions."

"If you're teaching the Middle East, then of course you're going to mention the religion that was prevalent in that area," commented Butt, a long-time Sunday school teacher. "But to teach the doctrine is another thing. It's just a bill about balancing the teaching of religion in education."

Based on her experience, Butt said, "Junior High is not the time that children are doing the most analysis. Insecurity is in Junior High a lot of times, and students are not able to differentiate a lot of things they are taught."

Charges of indoctrination by Tennessee parents are reminiscent of a case in California where a federal lawsuit was filed against the Byron Union School District concerning a three-week course about Islam seventh-graders that used the workbook, Islam, A simulation of Islamic history and culture.

In the California school, 12-year old students were told:                                                                  

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a ruling marked “Not for Publication,” decided that course did not contain “overt religious exercises” that violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Although Islamist organizations have argued that the Tennessee bill is “anti-Islam,” it is reasonable for parents to be concerned about such curriculum. Separation of “church and state” is foundational principle and primary right in the U.S. and should be enjoyed by every individual.

The teaching of religion as religion has no place in America’s public schools.

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org