Students will no longer be allowed to take field trips to religious venues after the stepfather of a Hendersonville High School student accused the school system of promoting Islam, starting another debate about the role of religion in Sumner County schools.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued the school system in 2011 over teacher-led prayer and promotion of Christianity on school campuses. In the settlement, Sumner schools admitted no wrongdoing, but new rules were put in place barring teachers from praying with students or leading Bible studies on school grounds, and prohibiting youth ministers from visiting schools other than to see family members.
The latest controversy, which has gained national attention on talk radio and cable news outlets, started at the end of August when some parents asked about a planned field trip to a mosque and a Hindu temple during a back-to-school night, said Mike Conner, the stepfather of a freshman at Hendersonville High. Concerns were raised about why the 36-week world studies course would only take students on visits to two religious venues, rather than houses of worship related to all five religions studied in the class.
"If we as parents don't begin speaking up, no one will," Conner said.
The honors course - which is an elective - has been offered by Hendersonville High for a decade. The curriculum includes world religions, and students spend three weeks on that topic, learning about Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, said school system spokesman Jeremy Johnson. In the past, the students have typically visited a Jewish synagogue, a Hindu temple and a Muslim mosque without parental complaints.
Conner said his stepdaughter opted out of the field trip and instead was asked to write an alternative assignment comparing and contrasting the religious teachings of Jesus, Gandhi and Muhammad. The materials she was given contained a page of Bible verses, two-thirds of a page about Gandhi and five pages about Muhammad.
When his stepdaughter decided she could not compare and contrast the three because she was given unequal information, she was initially told that she would receive a zero and would not be given another assignment, Conner said. That's when he really became upset. However, school officials later agreed to give a second alternative assignment.
That assignment was to choose three of the five religions and compare and contrast them. Conner wonders why his stepdaughter wasn't given that option in the first place.
Conner said other students who attended the Sept. 4 field trip told him copies of the Quran were given to students, who also participated in meditation in the Hindu temple. The school system's spokesman said materials were handed out at the mosque but he wasn't sure if they included Qurans, and a tour guide demonstrated how Hindu meditation is achieved but students were not required to participate.
Conner said he's OK with students studying five religions, but he found it problematic that only two houses of worship were visited.
"If you can't share equal time to all five, you shouldn't do any of them," he said.
The school system seems to agree, issuing a statement Sept. 17 saying all field trips to religious venues are off.
"After receiving a parent complaint regarding field trip locations, our district has reviewed the practice and decided to eliminate field trips to religious venues from this class, as it does not provide equal representation to all the religions studied in the course unit," read the statement. "This decision was made due to the fact that equal representation in regards to field trips for all religions studied in the course is not feasible."
Conner believes that between the trips and the assignment, the school was promoting the Islamic faith.
"The teacher was pushing Islamic tolerance," Conner said. "We did not want to make this about religion - they forced us to."
Sumner County Board of Education member Vanessa Silkwood believes some of Conner's points are valid.
"I think his initial concerns are right on," she said. "Whether or not there was true bias, I don't know. At least there is a perception that this course is skewed and they get that because they only went to two religious venues."
She said there's not enough instructional time or funds to tour five sites representative of all five religions.
Kelly Fussman, a 2012 graduate of Hendersonville High School, took the world studies course in 2008, visiting a mosque and a Hindu temple. She said she was disappointed to hear about the decision to halt the field trips.
"The world studies class was really the one and only class that allowed for such an open dialogue of faith and religion," she said. "To be able to experience what we were talking about firsthand - you can't get that through class discussion and a textbook."
The teacher of the course, Amanda Elmore, was among the first who made Fussman think critically about the world. "Without her pushing the limits, I wouldn't be so open to new cultures and traveling the world," Fussman said.
In a statement released Friday, Hindu statesman Rajan Zed urged Sumner County Schools to continue the field trips to religious venues.
Zed, who is President of Universal Society of Hinduism, said that awareness about other religions created by such trips would make Sumner County students "well-nurtured, well-balanced, and enlightened citizens of tomorrow."
He also said that trips should be made to all the religions covered in the classroom.