pencils_newWritten by Don Byrd

Social Studies courses in Tennessee public schools have prompted charges in recent weeks that the state’s curriculum is indoctrinating students in Islam. Sixth and seventh grade Tennessee students learn elements of major world religions – including Confucianism, Shinto, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam – in the context of world history lessons.

What does the separation of church and state say about this practice? Religious liberty guidelines make an important distinction between teaching *about* religion and religious indoctrination.

Teaching students about religion is lawful and encouraged by many advocates who argue we must understand various world religions to understand the world itself. On the other hand, a teacher’s endorsement or promotion of a religious perspective in the classroom or curriculum is unlawful indoctrination.

As you might expect, this distinction can sometimes be a fine line. Critics of Tennessee’s approach claim that it crosses that line by, for example, requiring students to write down and memorize the five Pillars of Islam.

State Representative Sheila Butt, however, argues that sixth and seventh Grade students are too young to comprehend the difference between teaching about religion and promoting religion. She has proposed legislation that would disallow such topics until the tenth grade.

The Tennessean reports:

A longtime Sunday school teacher, Butt said she thought students in middle school weren’t able to assess or analyze information about religion, or other subjects, in the same way as a high school student. . . .

“Junior high is not the time that children are doing the most analysis,” Butt said. “Insecurity is in junior high a lot of times, and students are not able to differentiate a lot of things they are taught.”

House Bill 1418 would prohibit curriculum standards that include any “religious doctrine” prior to tenth grade classes, and provides that “no religion shall be emphasized or focused on over another religion.”

See the Baptist Joint Committee’s resources on Religion in Public Schools.