A state lawmaker in Tennessee is proposing a bill that would ban public elementary and middle schools from teaching “religious doctrine.” The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a national group that promotes civil rights for Muslims, says the bill is rooted in Islamophobia and bigotry.
The bill introduced by state Rep. Sheila Butt, a Republican from Columbia, in Middle Tennessee, would prohibit the teaching of “religious doctrine” in public schools before 10th grade. The bill does not define the term, but specifies that in high school it can only be included in a comparative religion course that doesn’t focus on one particular faith.
While Butt told the Tennessean newspaper of Nashville that the bill is not aimed at any one religion, the proposal comes on the heels of complaints from some Tennessee parents about what their middle school children were learning about Islam in world history courses. U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., has argued that the teachings border on indoctrination.
“Oftentimes, young children may feel conflicted with what they are taught at home versus what they learn at school. Our parents send their children to school to learn, not be indoctrinated," Butt wrote on her personal website. "I want our children to possess the mental maturity to have a firm foot in their beliefs, as well as the mental acuity to know when to question and report to their parents what they are being taught if necessary."
But CAIR said in a statement on Monday that the bill is aimed at discriminating against Islam.
"Islamophobes like Rep. Butt fail to recognize that there is a big difference between teaching students about religion as an important part of world history and promoting particular religious beliefs," Robert McCaw, CAIR's government affairs manager, said in a statement. "The education of children in Tennessee should not be delayed because of anti-Muslim bigotry."
CAIR also cited Butt’s call last year for the creation of "a Council of Christian Relations and a NAAWP in this country.” Butt later asserted that the “w” stood for “Western,” not “white.” She also had a response for CAIR’s charges.
“It is interesting that CAIR would comment on my bill since the legislation never even mentions a particular religion, but instead explicitly states that no religion shall be emphasized or focused on over any other. The bill calls for comparative religion to be taught in high school and simply addresses the balance and age-appropriateness of teaching religion in Tennessee public schools," Butt responded in a statement.
While Candace McQueen, the state education commissioner, has defended the current public school curriculum, she added that the state would “speed up its timetable for reviewing social studies standards,” reports the Tennessean. State law already prohibits any public school courses from “teaching of religious doctrine or sectarian interpretation of the Bible or of texts from other religious or cultural traditions."
"The intent of the specific social studies standards in question is to focus on building students' cultural competence and instilling a deep understanding of how world religions impact world history," McQueen said in a statement.