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Tennessee policymakers and parents debate teaching religious doctrine in middle school
A new Tennessee bill has lawmakers, teachers and parents reflecting on the value of including religion in junior high history curriculums. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
As they consider a bill that would postpone lessons on topics like the five pillars of Islam until 10th grade, Tennessee lawmakers are debating if children are mature enough to study religious doctrine in history class.

"I think that probably the teaching that is going on right now in seventh (and) eighth grade is not age appropriate," Republican Rep. Sheila Butt, who proposed the bill, told The Tennessean. "(Students) are not able to discern a lot of times whether it's indoctrination or whether they're learning about what a religion teaches."

The proposed legislation comes after several parents complained to policymakers about history class homework assignments that included memorizing Islamic teachings, the article noted. The bill wouldn't block teachers from addressing religion, but it would increase the state board of education's ability to demand curriculum adjustments.

However, opponents of the bill, including members of The Council on American-Islamic Relations, have referred to it as thinly disguised Islamophobia, condemning policymakers for standing in the way of a well-rounded education, according to a follow-up article from The Tennessean.

"Islamophobes like Rep. Butt fail to recognize that there is a big difference between teaching students about religion as an important part of world history and promoting particular religious beliefs," said Robert McCaw, CAIR's government affairs manager, in a prepared statement quoted by The Tennessean. "The education of children in Tennessee should not be delayed because of anti-Muslim bigotry."

The teachings of the world's religions are often included in history or social studies curriculums because of the role faith has played in global politics for centuries, notes a post on addressing faith in a classroom from the American Historical Association.

"Discussing religion is crucial for grasping multiple aspects of history, society, politics and culture," the blog explains.

Religion in public schools has been a flash point in America's culture wars for more than 50 years. But it has typically been secular groups accusing schools of violating the First Amendment's prohibition against government sponsored religion. The U.S. Supreme Court issued two landmark rulings in the early 1960s that have acted as guides to how faith can be addressed in public instruction.

The current debate stems from parents fearing that lessons on religion aren't presented in an appropriate way, leading young students to get confused about their own beliefs, according to religious education advocates, who note that schools could do a better job helping parents understand why religious teachings are in lesson plans.

"Schools should examine how well they are informing parents and the public at large about lessons on religion," wrote Linda Wertheimer, author of "Faith Ed: Teaching about Religion in an Age of Intolerance," for The Huffington Post.
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