Can something good come out of something bad? Maybe. Consider this case from Tennessee: A state lawmaker, moved to action by Islamophobia, recently filed a bill that would prevent public schools from promoting “religious doctrine.”
The measure, HB 1418, was recently proposed by state Rep. Sheila Butt (R-Columbia). Based on Butt’s Facebook page, she seems to be allied with the Tea Party – she posted pictures of herself with two far-right GOP presidential candidates: U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. She also described herself as an “unapologetic conservative.”
What started all of this? It seems some local parents were whipped into a fervor recently by a Tennessee minister, the Rev. Greg Locke, who claimed in an online video that state public schools were indoctrinating students in Islam. (Of course, Locke likely has a hard time telling the difference between education and indoctrination – there is no evidence that children in the state are being pressured to practice Islam.)
“Let me tell you something, when they are in sixth grade they get a half a page of watered down Christianity that has about as much Bible as a thimble, if you will, and now there’s 28 pages they have to learn about Islam, and Mohammad, and how it all came about, and about the holy Koran, and the Five Pillars of Islam, and how they pray, and when they pray, and where they pray, and how they pray, and why they pray, and about pilgrimages and all this and then they say that Allah is the only God,” Locke blustered.
He even claimed it was no coincidence that students were assigned to take a standardized test on Sept. 11!
This apparently stirred Butt to action. On her Facebook page, she explained the need for her legislation.
“I have introduced a bill to change the way Tennessee teaches religion in our public schools,” she wrote. “Parents send their kids to school to be educated, not indoctrinated.”
In an interview with the Nashville Tennessean, Butt added that middle school-age children “are not able to discern a lot of times whether its indoctrination or whether they’re learning about what a religion teaches.”
Given the paranoid basis for Butt’s measure, one would assume that her bill targets Islam. Yet whether she intended it or not, the measure’s language would prevent public schools from promoting any one faith over all others.
The brief bill reads: “The state board of education shall not include religious doctrine in any curriculum standards for grades prior to grades ten through twelve (10–12).”
Although HB 1418 does not define “religious doctrine,” it states that “no religion shall be emphasized or focused on over another religion.”
Read one way, the bill would prevent public schools from forcing Islam, Christianity or any other viewpoint on students. That is a good thing.
On the downside, the effect of this measure, if read broadly, could foster ignorance because it would prevent younger students from learning much about any religion – and a lack of knowledge tends to provoke fear/hatred.
In short, teaching about religion objectively in public schools is OK. Preaching the doctrines of a certain faith is not.
It also seems that some Tennessee trepidations about Islamic indoctrination were baseless. State public school administrators and teachers who spoke with the Tennessean said that even though students may be taught the Five Pillars of Islam or read from the Quran, the point of those studies is purely to show the influence of religion.
“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 said. “There is a lot of influence that that part of the world had on world history.”
Since Butt’s bill is a bit vague and was motivated by fear, it’s hard to say how it will be implemented should it pass – and whether or not its implementation would be good or bad for Tennessee youngsters. A bill that inhibits public schools from promoting one religion or viewpoint over all others is generally positive, but if it goes too far and removes legitimate instruction about religion and its role in history, that’s bad.
Remember, public schools exist to educate, not indoctrinate – much to the Religious Right’s everlasting chagrin.