Republican state Rep. Sheila Butt of Columbia wants to quell concerns among lawmakers and some parents around the state that Tennessee public schools may be inappropriately promoting Islam.
Under legislation Butt has filed for consideration in the General Assembly’s 2016 session, the state board of education would be prohibited from requiring that kids be taught “religious doctrine” prior to the 10th grade.
House Bill 1418 would also require that in classes where older students learn about “comparative religion as it relates to history or geography,” teachers take steps to ensure “no religion shall be emphasized or focused on over another religion.”
“If the curriculum standards in grades prior to grades ten through twelve (10–12) include a reference to a specific religion or the role and importance of a religion in history or geography, then the state board shall ensure that the reference does not amount to teaching any form of religious doctrine to the students,” Butt’s legislation declares.
Butt, a Christian motivational speaker by trade, is the Tennessee House GOP supermajority’s legislative floor leader. She also serves on the House Education Instruction and Programs Committee.
She told the Tennesseean this week that HB1418 is not an attack on religion in general, or Islam in particular. Rather, she is concerned with “balancing the teaching of religion in education.”
“I think that probably the teaching that is going on right now in seventh, eighth grade is not age appropriate,” she told the paper. “They are not able to discern a lot of times whether its indoctrination or whether they’re learning about what a religion teaches.”
The state’s Department of Education is in the process of reviewing social studies standards.
Butt said she’s encountered “quite a bit of confusion as far as who is in charge of standards and curriculum.” For that reason, state lawmakers need to get more involved in discussions over what subject matter is suitable for public school students, she said.
During a stopover in Butt’s Maury County district last month, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen sought to clarify the roles between local and state education officials on setting classroom programs of study.
“Certainly, we are setting that expectation, but how’s it done, what instructional practices are used, what strategies are used, what curriculum is used is absolutely a local decision,” McQueen said in a Columbia Daily Herald story about her visit.
“Our intent has been to use the standards to actually look at world religions and world cultures and see how it impacts world history,” McQueen continued. “The way a parent can then talk about that at home is certainly an approach that will be individualized. They should take that information and have those conversations with students through their own belief system and weigh that appropriately inside their own homes.”