First up from the God Machine this week is an amazing story out of Tennessee, where some conservative policymakers want less religion in public schools, not more -- because in this case, the religion is a minority faith.
The Tennessean newspaper reported on a new measure pending in the state legislature that would prohibit "anything deemed 'religious doctrine'" for public school students in ninth grade or younger.
The bill from Rep. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia, comes on the heels of complaints from some parents in several communities as to what their children are learning in middle school about Islam. [...] Parents in Williamson County, Maury County and several other areas have complained about information contained in courses related to world history. Some, like U.S. Rep Diane Black, R-Tenn., argue the teachings border on indoctrination.
State education officials explained that secular information about religion is sometimes included in school curriculum. The Tennessean pointed, for example, to students being exposed to the Five Pillars of Islam in order to "provide historical context about the influence the religion had on regions of the world."
The same article quoted a Nashville social studies teacher who noted the Muslim world's role in bringing us algebra and influencing the Renaissance.
And this evidently doesn't sit well with some in the area. Butt, a longtime Sunday school teacher, does not specifically identify any faith tradition in her bill, but given the larger context, it appears the ban on lessons that include "religious doctrine" is motivated by concerns surrounding Islam. (The controversy began in earnest when a Tennessee minister, the Rev. Greg Locke, "claimed in an online video that state public schools were indoctrinating students in Islam.")
There is some irony to all of this. For decades, conservative policymakers have fought tooth and nail to blur the church/state line, demanding as much religion in public schools as legally possible -- and then some. There was never any concern among these activists on the right about "indoctrination." On the contrary, that was the point.
But this effort in Tennessee suggests these conservatives efforts have always been more about promoting their religion, not just matters pertaining to faith in general.
As for the proposed legislation, the process is just now getting started on this bill. I'll let you know what happens.
Also from the God Machine this week:
* There's been considerable debate of late over the legal scope of the phrase "religious liberty." With this in mind, there's a dispute in Washington, D.C. in which a local church is arguing that "a bike lane near its property would infringe upon 'its constitutionally protected rights of religious freedom and equal protection of the laws.'" The introduction of a bike lane might lead to fewer parking spaces, church officials have argued, which "would place an unconstitutionally undue burden on people who want to pray" (thanks to my colleague Will Femia for the heads-up).
* The pope asked for forgiveness this week on behalf of his church: "Amid a three-week conference of hundreds of bishops on family issues, Pope Francis issued an unusual and unexpected public apology on Wednesday for scandals that have bedeviled the church."
* And TV preacher Pat Robertson fielded a question from a viewer on his "700 Club" program this week. "Why have you undergone surgeries if your faith would be enough?" the viewer asked. Oddly enough, the televangelist struggled to answer.