NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov. Bill Haslam is raising questions about a legislative proposal to ban Tennessee schools from teaching about “religious doctrine” before the 10th grade, saying it could have unexpected consequences.
For instance, the Republican governor said the proposal could prevent younger students from learning why the Pilgrims decided to leave Europe.
“I don’t know how you talk about the founding of America, and what became of the United States, without talking about religious doctrine,” Haslam told reporters last week. “Now, that’s very different than indoctrinating, or teaching that doctrine as truth.”
The bill sponsored by Republican state Rep. Sheila Butt of Columbia would require the state board of education to review any religion mentioned in a middle school curriculum to ensure “the reference does not amount to teaching any form of religious doctrine to the students.” It would also require that any teaching of comparative religion in high school not focus more on one religion than another.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations has decried the measure as being “fueled by rising hysteria over the false claim that middle schoolers are being subjected to ‘Islamic indoctrination.'”
State education officials have said that while students may learn the Five Pillars of Islam or read from religious texts, that information is used to provide historical context about the influence the religion has had on regions of the world.
Butt insists her bill is “neutral on its face” and that it only aims to set an appropriate time to teach about religion. She said in a statement that the Muslim organization is resorting to what she called the “same old tired canards and accusations” to prevent a frank discussion.
“I believe that Tennessee citizens are smarter than that and welcome the opportunity to participate in a reasoned and objective debate on these issues as we try to determine what is in the best interest of Tennessee students,” she said.
Butt has clashed with the Council on American-Islamic Relations before. The group in February urged state leaders to repudiate what they considered a racist Facebook post by Butt in which she wrote: “It is time for a Council on Christian Relations and an NAAWP in this Country.”
CAIR said the name “National Association for the Advancement of White People” has been used by several white supremacist organizations, and that the term “NAAWP” is an apparently racist twist to the name of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP.
Butt, who is white, told The Associated Press at the time that the W in her NAAWP acronym stood for the “Western” peoples, and said her post has been misinterpreted.
“I have no idea why that’s been taken so out of context,” Butt said. “Somebody is trying to make something out of that.”