Maury County parents are expressing concern after their children came home with world history schoolwork containing references to Islam and its teachings.
The school district contends the curriculum has been in place for more than three decades, and world history is difficult to teach without referencing religions.
Brandee Porterfield has a daughter in seventh grade at Spring Hill Middle School. She said her daughter brought home school materials containing the Five Pillars of Islam. While she agrees that Islam is part of history and does not have a problem with schools teaching about the religion, she said the lesson skipped a chapter about Christianity.
Porterfield said school officials moved past the chapter because it was not part of the state's standards.
"I have big problem with that. From a historical point of view, that's a lot of history these kids are missing," she said. "Also, for them to spend three weeks on Islam after having skipped Christianity, it seems to be that they are making a choice about which religion to discuss."
The mother said she was concerned about her child being taught the "Shahada," the Muslim profession of faith which was contained in a foldable teaching material.
One of the translations of the creed reads, "There is no god but Allah; Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah."
"I have no problem with the teacher at all. It's just that yellow foldable seems to be teaching our children religion in schools, and only that religion," Porterfield said. "From a religion point of view, if the schools are going to be teaching religion in history, they need to teach them all equally."
Joy Ellis, who also has seventh-grader at Spring Hill Middle School, said she was aware students were studying Islam but took issue with the Shahada section.
"To me, a Christian child should not be made to write that," Ellis said.
Ellis believes religion does not belong in schools, but if it is going to be taught, then Christianity should be taught because it is the most common in the United States.
According to a Pew Research Center study in 2014 that surveyed 35,000 people from across the U.S., 81 percent of Tennesseans asked identified as Christian. One percent identified as Muslim, while 14 percent said they were not affiliated with any religion.
National numbers showed 70.6 of those surveyed said they were Christian, while 0.9 percent identified as Muslim, according to the data.
"I honestly don't want my child learning about Islam at all, but if they've got to learn about it, I would like for them to learn about the historical aspects of it and definitely nothing about the religion ... I don't want her writing 'Allah is the only god,'" Ellis said.
Dr. Jan Hanvey, Maury County Public Schools middle school supervisor, said the curriculum and topics have been covered for at least 31 years. She is a former social studies teacher.
She said teachers do not spend three weeks specifically talking about Islam, but rather the geography, culture, economics and government surrounding the religion.
Islam is discussed for about one day of the three-week period, Hanvey said. By the end of the year, students will have studied Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions, she said.
"It's part of history. If you don't talk about it, then you are leaving out the 'why,'" Hanvey said. "Children need to know the 'why,' and they need to be able to learn and know where to find the facts, instead of going by what they hear or what they see on the Internet."
The chapter on Christianity was not skipped over but was put off until a later date, she said. The textbook's chapter layout does not drive instruction. Instead, teachers use a pacing guide that may be different from chapter chronology, Hanvey said.
The state's pacing guide says seventh grade social studies begins with the Islamic world, then moves on to studies in ancient Africa. The year ends with the "Age of Exploration," which is continued in eighth grade.
Christianity is studied during the Age of Exploration section partly because religious persecution is one of the main reasons pilgrims left in search of a new world, Hanvey said.
Tennessee teachers helped develop the teaching standards, and the state makes its tests based on them, she added.
Ashley Ball, Tennessee Department of Education spokeswoman, said in an email the state sets academic standards or expectations for what students should know or be able to do in each grade.
Local districts determine the curriculum, tailoring what classroom instruction looks like to their students and teachers, she wrote. Per the state standards, all major religions are taught across sixth and seventh grade, Ball added.
Modern events have caused "fear" of Islam, Hanvey said. She compared it to the 1940s when people were afraid of Japanese culture and people during World War II.
"It's hard to separate religion from history," Hanvey said. "It's teaching about religion. We are not trying to convert."
Spring Hill Middle School Principal Shanda Sparrow said in a statement that seventh grade teachers who shared the semester's syllabus at the beginning of the year are having fewer questions from parents.
She acknowledges the school did "not do the best job" highlighting topics that might be considered controversial, including sensitive topics like religion.
Sparrow said in the statement the school will be offering a brief forum at its Sept. 17 Parent-Teacher conferences in which parents can ask questions.
"We have responded to parents who've contacted us about the Islam unit of world history. In addition to that, we want all parents to know about the content of social studies (and) world history and continue an open dialogue about that," Sparrow said. "An open dialogue with our parents is essential for us to maintain good parent relationships, and I've appreciated parents' willingness to bring to me — and to the school district — classroom issues they have concerns about."