Islam lessons criticized

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The teaching of Islam has been a hot button topic lately in Tennessee -- and nationally -- and is involved in an expedited review of state school standards.

The increased scrutiny has sped up the state's review of Social Studies standards, with some critics calling the coursework "indoctrination."

School standards are normally reviewed every six years. New Social Studies standards were implemented last school year, 2014-2015, and loud opposition erupted.

Some parents complained that the curriculum devotes more study time to Islam than it does to Christianity, multiple news outlets report.

They say students are taught the Five Pillars of Islam but not the Ten Commandments.

One parent told Spring Hill Home Page, a news website, that students were required to transcribe the phrase, "Allah is the only God," when studying the Shahada, one of the Five Pillars.

Responses

Politicians and radio talk show hosts have joined the outcry.

State Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, said in a press release last month that "due to public outcry, the state has agreed to review the standards in January.

"I am calling for those standards to be revised as soon as Session starts. I repeat, not reviewed, but revised."

Tennessee political consultant/attorney/talk radio host Steve Gill of Gill Media said he expects the debate on standards to become a hot topic in the legislature in January.

"We'll wait to see how the legislature and the Haslam administration respond to the indoctrination of Islam in classrooms under the approval of the state school board," Gill said. "Legislators should be called to answer why this is taking place in Tennessee classrooms."

Local schools

Bedford County School Superintendent Don Embry said the district has received a lot of inquiries about Islam in the curriculum.

"Once we explain what we do, the parents have been very satisfied when they realize what we're actually doing," Embry said.

Bedford County teaches that religion plays a huge part in world history but "there is absolutely no proselytizing," Embry said, despite some false Facebook rumors. "We teach the factual part of it. We don't stress one religion more than another."

Marsh, Tracy speak

State Rep. Pat Marsh said he believes that while the world's religions, including Islam, should be discussed in school, the discussions should not have to go into great depth.

And if local school districts decide they do not want to teach Islam or any other religion, they should be able to remove it.

State Sen. Jim Tracy said that he understands that some teachers in the state have gone beyond what is in the textbooks and also said that teaching of religions should not go into great depth.

He said he is concerned that since Islam is part of the year-end tests that teachers feel they must teach the subject. He met recently with other legislators to discuss textbooks and the year-end tests.

Proposed changes

On Friday, state Rep. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia, filed a bill (HB1418) to reorganize the teaching of religious studies in the state, according to a press release from her office.

The bill, among other decrees, will mandate that religious studies not be taught before grades 10-12. The bill also mandates that only a study of comparative religion, as it relates to history or geography, may be taught but that no religion shall be emphasized or focused on over another religion.

The bill specifies that the state board has total and complete domain over this curriculum.

Records sought

Even as state officials examine the teaching of religions in schools, a national Christian legal group has taken an interest in Tennessee's curriculums.

The American Center for Law and Justice in September made a public records request for the Islamic curriculums and all other related teaching materials from all 146 school districts in the state. The Tennessean reported that attorney Chuck Cagle of the Lewis Thomason law firm, who represents more than 70 school districts, including Bedford County, denied the ACLJ's request.

One of Cagle's reasons for turning down the request is that he said the ACLJ's attorney is not a Tennessee resident, which is required as part of the state's open record law.

Residency

The ACLJ would not tell the Times-Gazette if any districts had complied with its requests but did issue a statement from its executive counsel CeCe Heil that addressed the residency issue:

"In response to numerous reports from parents throughout the state expressing concern about the manner in which students are being instructed regarding the Islamic religion in Tennessee public schools, the ACLJ, through one of our attorneys who is a Tennessee citizen, issued valid requests to the public school districts seeking public records regarding their curriculum. We have received responses from numerous school districts to our open records requests.

"Although some of them have followed a sample letter apparently provided by a law firm to try to deny our requests, it is not uncommon for a government entity to try to delay compliance with an open records or FOIA request.

"We deal with government entities regularly and anticipate the necessity of engaging in negotiations pertaining to the actual documentation received. We are currently corresponding with the school districts that have questions and are happy to address any concerns or clarifications they may have or need."

Scrutinizing materials

Gill said that some parents are reporting that their children are being given supplemental learning materials supplied by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). The organization says it is a Muslim civil rights group, but some conservatives question its motives.

Susan Curlee is a parent and school board member in Williamson County who testified last month to the state's Textbook & Materials Quality Commission on Social Studies books. She said that as a parent, she was shocked when her daughter came home with supplemental materials supplied by CAIR. Parents are supposed to have the right to review such materials, she said.

"If Christianity were taught this way, what would the reaction be?" she asked. "The ACLU would shut this down. That's the ultimate litmus test."

The state's American Civil Liberties Union said it encourages the teaching of religion as long as it does not proselytize.

"Public schools are prohibited under the First Amendment from endorsing or encouraging religion in any way," a statement from Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN executive director, read. "However, schools can educate students about religious traditions and beliefs as long as such teachings are presented in an objective, unbiased way, and do not advocate or criticize either religion in general or any particular beliefs.

"Indeed, so long as information about religion is presented in a neutral manner, Tennessee students can only benefit from understanding different religions and their role in the world, developing their critical thinking skills, and engaging in dialogue on diverse perspectives."

What is taught?

While the state sets the standards to say what students should know of end-of-year tests, districts have the freedom to determine what curriculum to use, said Ashley Ball, communications director for the Tennessee Department of Education. The standards on religion have not changed much over the years, she said.

Gill said that the Franklin Special School District is one of several districts to receive a PowerPoint created by CAIR. The presentation covers a variety of Islamic topics, from the historical founding of the religion to its prophets, pilgrimages and statement of faith to explaining how its worship works and illustrating the layout of a typical mosque. The presentation also says that Mount Moriah Rock is "where Muhammad ascended into heaven."

Curlee said that the teaching of religious creeds violates students' constitutional rights. In her testimony to the textbook commission, she said that last year, the writing portion of the Social Studies year-end exam devoted eight of 32 questions to Islam. Students were required to write out the Shahada, or Muslim profession of faith.

She also said that she believes the state should review the standards, books, supplemental materials and tests together, not separately.