POLL: Should Tennessee ban teaching "religious doctrine" until high school?
No Tennessee public school course could include anything deemed "religious doctrine" unless the course is taught in 10th, 11th or 12th grade if a newly proposed bill becomes law.
The bill from Rep. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia, comes on the heels of complaints from some parents in several communities as to what their children are learning in middle school about Islam.
"I think that probably the teaching that is going on right now in seventh, eighth grade is not age appropriate," Butt said Friday afternoon. "They are not able to discern a lot of times whether its indoctrination or whether they're learning about what a religion teaches."
Parents in Williamson County, Maury County and several other areas have complained about information contained in courses related to world history. Some, like U.S. Rep Diane Black, R-Tenn., argue the teachings border on indoctrination.
Tennessee education officials and teachers recently argued courses were appropriate and based on secular fact during a discussion of the curriculum with The Tennessean. They acknowledged students might learn the Five Pillars of Islam or read from religious texts, but that information is used to provide historical context about the influence the religion had on regions of the world.
"The reality is the Muslim world brought us algebra, 'One Thousand and One Nights,' and some can argue it helped bring about the Renaissance," Metro Nashville Public Schools social studies teacher Kyle Alexander recently told The Tennessean. "There is a lot of influence that that part of the world had on world history."
Butt argues her bill isn't specifically aimed at Islam and that it wouldn't ban mentioning any religion at the middle school level. The bill says if a religion is mentioned in middle school curriculum, then it is up to the state board of education to make sure "the reference does not amount to teaching any form of religious doctrine to the students."
Butt doesn't think the line between mentioning religion and teaching "religious doctrine" would be hard to navigate.
"If you're teaching the Middle East, then of course you're going to mention the religion that was prevalent in that area," Butt said. "But to teach the doctrine is another thing. It's just a bill about balancing the teaching of religion in education."
A longtime Sunday school teacher, Butt said she thought students in middle school weren't able to assess or analyze information about religion, or other subjects, in the same way as a high school student. She never said why that was something to curtail when it came to teaching anything related to religion.
"Junior high is not the time that children are doing the most analysis," Butt said. "Insecurity is in junior high a lot of times, and students are not able to differentiate a lot of things they are taught."
The concept of "religious doctrine" is never defined in Tennessee law. There is a reference to the concept in a portion of the law related to using the Bible in school. The law says the Bible may be used in class, as long as the course doesn't include "teaching of religious doctrine or sectarian interpretation of the Bible or of texts from other religious or cultural traditions."
It's unclear how Butt's legislation would affect current law.
The bill also requires that any teaching of "comparative religion" in high school not focus more on one religion than another.
After some backlash, Department of Education Commissioner Candace McQueen recently announced that the state would speed up its timeline for reviewing social studies standards.
"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 recent statement.
She also noted that state standards set the minimum learning expectation for students, while decisions as to curriculum and instruction are up to local districts, schools and teachers.
That's where lawmakers need to step in, Butt said. She said she thinks there's general confusion among parents and local schools as to what they must teach and what decisions they're allowed to make.
"I think most local boards of education, certainly in our [local] instance, there is quite a bit of confusion as far as who is in charge of standards and curriculum," Butt said. "I think we need to have discussions about that."
Lawmakers already spent time this session looking at both standards and curriculum as it relates to the divisive Common Core education standards.
Plenty of additional discussion on the issue is expected when the legislative session resumes in January.