Profiting The Prophet?: Tenn. Legislators Fear Voucher Bill Will Subsidize Islamic Schools

If vouchers are made available to a wide variety of private schools, including religious institutions, simply saying that Islamic schools can’t take part isn’t going to fly.

Yesterday Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam abruptly pulled a private school voucher bill after some legislators refused to give him assurances that they would not try to alter the bill in ways Haslam does not support.

This is a good thing. Vouchers are a bad idea that distract from meaningful education reform.

But other voucher proposals are still pending in the legislature, so the issue is not dead in Tennessee.

During the legislators’ debate over these proposals, some interesting developments occurred that underscore why vouchers are such a reckless form of public policy. Many Tennessee legislators were all for the plan – until they realized that (gasp!) Muslim schools might qualify for the money too!

That’s definitely a problem for some lawmakers in the Volunteer State. Some of the same people who like the idea of vouchers aren’t exactly fans of Islam.

Consider Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro. In 2011, Ketron sponsored a bill that labeled any adherence to Islamic law (shariah) treason punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Critics said the measure would have outlawed religious practices, such as certain forms of prayer mandated by shariah.

Ketron is now urging the state to slow down on the voucher bill.

“This issue gives me pause in voting for the governor’s voucher proposal,” Ketron said. “These issues warrant further assessment.

“What’s the rush?” he asked.

Sen. Jim Tracy of Shelbyville concurred.

“This is an issue we must address,” Tracy said. “I don’t know whether we can simply amend the bill in such a way that will fix the issue at this point.”

The Murfreesboro Post reported that there are several Islamic schools in Tennessee that would qualify to take part in the program. Among them are the International Academy and the Clara Muhammad School, both in Nashville. The Academy says it exists “to create a positive learning environment where students are committed to the teachings of the Quran and example of Prophet Muhammad.” The Muhammad School is run by the controversial Nation of Islam.

Ketron and Tracy seem to be a little confused. Let me clarify something for them: If vouchers are made available to a wide variety of private schools, including religious institutions, simply amending the bill to say that Islamic schools can’t take part isn’t going to fly. The government has an obligation to treat all religious groups equally.

Could some neutral criteria be devised that would have the effect of eliminating the Muslim schools? I doubt it. And the fact that these two senators are in the media blabbing about how much they don’t like Islam and don’t want to fund Islamic schools is strong evidence of bias. I’m sure a judge would find that relevant when this matter lands in court.

Here in the Washington, D.C., area, we’ve already been through this. During the George W. Bush presidency, Congress foisted a federally funded voucher “experiment” on the city. It hasn’t boosted student achievement for the targeted population, and many of the schools are of questionable quality, but House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has kept the program alive.

One of the schools taking part in it is called the Muhammad University of Islam. This unaccredited institution is affiliated with the Nation of Islam, a racially separatist sect with a record of anti-Semi­tism and homophobia. I shudder to think what young people are taught there. Your tax dollars are propping it up.

Of course, most Muslim schools don’t preach the extreme and exclusionary theology of the Nation of Islam. But, like all other religious schools, they do exist to impart theological views. This is their right – but you and I shouldn’t have to pay for it.

In fact, no one should be forced to pay for anyone else’s religious schooling ever. Americans United opposes taxpayer support for any religious school, be it Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc. It’s ironic that the objection these legislators raise about Muslim schools is the same many people feel about other types of religious institutions.

I’m glad that at least one of Tennessee’s voucher proposals is dead for now. But others are still out there, so we need to remain vigilant. Chiefly, we need to remind lawmakers in Tennessee and elsewhere that disputes over which religious groups should get the money could be avoided if we don’t fund any of them and direct tax money to where it rightfully belongs – to public schools that don’t preach any religion and that welcome students from all faith perspectives and none.