Anti-censorship, anti-Islamic indoctrination groups join Sullivan textbook debate

Rick Wagner • Updated Dec 27, 2016 at 8:16 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — On one side is a Bluff City Middle School mother, calling for removal of seventh grade social studies textbook she believes is slanted toward Islam and amounts to Islamic indoctrination.

On the receiving end of the request is the Sullivan County Board of Education, which has not yet formally responded to her submitted form that is making its way through a procedure at the school level, as outlined by board policy.

However, some national groups have lined up on both sides of the issue, one supporting the mother’s call and the other, a coalition of six groups, urging the BOE to keep the textbook and citing court rulings.

As previously reported, Freedom X, a California-based group that says on its website it is a conservative group fighting Islamic indoctrination in U.S. schools, has sided with Michelle Edmisten, who said her daughter took a zero grade in some assignments involving Islam because she refused to do them and was offered no other alternative. The textbook in question is Pearson’s “My World History” used in Sullivan and other area school systems as one of the Tennessee-approved textbooks.

Edmisten, among other things, has said much of the Islam information is more appropriate for high school or college learning, not middle school learning. And she started the Sullivan County Parents Against Islamic Indoctrination page on Facebook.

In a letter dated Nov. 21, the New York-based National Coalition Against Censorship, though its Kids’ Right to Read Project, asked the seven board members to reject the parent’s request. It is from Svetlana Mintcheva, NCAC director of programs. The letter also went to Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski.

NCAC’s letter to the school board argues that is is impossible for a seventh grade textbook, intended to introduce students to world religions, to convey Islamic history in its entirety,” the NCAC news release said. “The letter notes the distinction between religious education and indoctrination, underlining the need for basic religious literacy in our increasingly diverse and multicultural societies. The school’s decision to remove the textbook would also raise serious First Amendment concerns, the letter states, by ignoring the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1989 ruling in Texas v. Johnson that government may not discriminate against ‘the expression of an idea simply because society [or a parent] finds the idea offensive or disagreeable.’ “

Some school board members, notably Jane Thomas of the Bluff City/Bristol area and Chairman Michael Hughes of the Hickory Tree community, have said they have issues with the textbook when it comes to Islam, although board member Randall Jones of Indian Springs has asked the financial implications of choosing new textbooks a couple of years before the six-year cycle begins to buy new ones. In addition, Tennessee has proposed changes in standards that would delete much of Islam in seventh grade standards, and Jones said a new textbook would have to meet current standards until the new ones are in place.

Since BOE members made those statements in public meetings, however, and Edmisten Nov. 4 presented her formal request for the book to be removed, school officials have remained mum on the issue. That is because Freedom X has agreed to provide legal representation to Edmisten, outside public meetings the board and school director refer all questions about the issue to longtime BOE attorney Pat Hull.

Hull on Dec. 22 said Freedom X is “taking up her cause,” although as of now he has no indication NCAC is proposing to do the same for the school board. “I think they’re just expressing their thoughts,” Hull said.

The letter is co-signed by Comic Book Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Charles Brownstein; American Booksellers for Free Expression Director Chris Finan; the American Library Association’s James LaRue, director of the group’s Office for Intellectual Freedom; Judith Platt, director of Free Expression Advocacy for the American American Publishers; and Fatima Shaid, co-chairman the Children’s and Young Adult’s Book Committee.

“It is impossible for any book — let along a seventh-grade world history textbook — to convey the history of Islam in its entirety,” the letter says.

“What Ms. Edmisten views as authorial bias may very well be the result of necessary decisions concerning the material that must be omitted from any introductory overview of a religion,” the letter says. “Education students about Islam does not constitute indoctrination. Education seeks to inform students about belief systems. Indoctrination in a belief system, in contrast, attempts to convince students that subjective or faith-based elements of a belief system are objective truths.

“Factual lessons about Islamic theology do not constitute an endorsement of Islam at the expense of other faiths. Students are taught what Muslims believe; they are not being persuaded that such beliefs are correct (or incorrect). In this sense lessons on Islam are no different from lessons on Judaism, Catholicism and other religions belief systems. A school’s goal is to help students understand the belief systems, not to convince students of the systems’ value or lack thereof. 

NCAC also noted an increase in challenges to educational materials involving Islam and has compiled a timeline of those.

“Islam is one of the largest world religions, second only to Christianity,” NCAC’s Josh Zuckerman said in the release. “Eliminating the subject from the classroom would necessarily fail students in their education of the world and its history.” 

The letter also cites Monteriro v. Tempe Union School Dist. ruling by the Supreme Court, the Sherman v. Community Consolidated School District 21 ruling by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and the Smith v. Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County, also by that court of appeals.





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