For decades, humanists, agnostics, and nontheists have fought to ensure that our public education system is secular and does not promote religious ideology to students. Our movement fought for secular education because schools are places for learning tangible subjects like mathematics, literature, and the sciences, while houses of worship are the places best suited for conversations on the supernatural. And as a pluralistic nation, we also recognize that it would be inappropriate to promote one religious ideology at the expense of others or at the expense of those who do not believe in a god.
In recent years, many conservative Christian groups have attempted to undercut this secular model of education, either by working to reintroduce biblical prayer and lessons into the classroom or by trying to pass legislation that would allow for the government to fund private religious schools. That’s why it was a surprise when a religious right state legislator in Tennessee recently introduced a bill that seemingly works to protect secular education.
Rep. Sheila Butt of the Tennessee House of Representatives is an infamous character, to say the least. She’s made some wild and inconsiderate statements over the years, such as when she posted to Facebook this controversial statement: “It is time for a Council on Christian Relations and a National Association for the Advancement of White People in this country.”
But more recently, Rep. Butt introduced a bill, HB 1418, which if it came from a liberal legislator in a progressive state, would be praised by the entire secular community. According to Rep. Butt, the bill would “mandate that religious studies not be taught before grades ten through twelve…and 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. Finally, if the curriculum standards in grades prior to grades ten through twelve 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.”
The actual text of the bill is laudable, except for some language it has prohibiting “religious indoctrination.” This term, which isn’t clearly defined, is problematic for a number of reasons. The biggest worry opponents of the bill have is that it would be up to state officials to determine what exactly “religious indoctrination” entails, and many groups are correctly concerned that in an overwhelmingly Christian state, Christian beliefs would likely be viewed more favorably than minority religious beliefs and may justify their way into the classroom while lessons about other views are prohibited.
In fact, America’s leading anti-Muslim discrimination organization, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), came out against the bill because it believes that this bill was only introduced due to a recent controversy regarding the state’s social studies curriculum, which includes lessons about the global impact of Islam and information about its core tenants. CAIR, and several other groups see the bill not as a way to protect secular education, but as a rather sneaky attempt to allow for educational discussions about Christianity, while preventing conversations about other faiths such as Islam.
This bill puts the humanist community in a tough position. On the one hand, the text of the bill alone is nondiscriminatory and upholds the secular values that humanists ascribe to while allowing for the teaching about religion in a comparative and non-theological manner. But when one looks at the context of the situation—the pro-Christian and potentially racist views of the bill’s sponsor and the state’s attempt to remove all mention of Islam from the educational curriculum while preserving discussion about Christianity—things become much more complex.
Our best option in this case may just be to wait and see. If the bill passes and state officials interpret “religious indoctrination” in a fair context, humanists should be vocal about supporting the new law and seek to get similar versions passed nationwide, albeit with a clearer definition of “religious indoctrination.” But if this is just a gimmick by religious conservatives in the South to cleverly protect Christianity in the classroom by pretending to support secular education, humanists should rally against the law and work towards legislative solutions that actually protect secularism in our public schools.