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Comparative religion course sparks controversy in Tennessee

By The Associated Press


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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A spat has broken out in Memphis over a proposed comparative religion course for high school students.

The Shelby County School Board first tried to add Bible history classes but was stopped by the state because the proposed courses were found to be too specifically Protestant. It was then proposed that the board adopt the comparative religion course instead, but the board rejected it.

Board member Wyatt Bunker was the most vocal opponent of the comparative religion course, calling it "just altogether a bad idea to teach Hinduism, Buddhism and voodoo and whatever else in our schools."

He said he took a comparative religion class in college and is convinced that such courses are not suitable for younger, impressionable children.

"If they don't want God in our schools, then we're not going to have Gandhi in our schools," he said.

Some citizens take exception to Bunker's comments.

Judy Paalborg, a Jew who has two children in county schools, said: "There is enough of a struggle among the children teaching them respect for diversity, and the last thing we need is adults — especially adults involved in education — spouting off this poison. I think he needs to resign after he apologizes to the entire community. He needs to take a comparative religion class himself."

Cliff Heegel, a Buddhist minister who leads a small congregation in Germantown, said: "It seems to me the school board is trying to impose religious values on the curriculum, especially since they rejected the broad-based world religion course that is taught in almost every university. There is a difference between education and indoctrination. They want to teach the students what to think ... instead of how to think."

Heegel said he was particularly concerned because he belongs to a religious minority in the county.

"I don't know where it would end. I know it's not Nazi Germany, but that's what came into my head," he said.

The state Department of Education in May rejected the county's application to teach Bible History I and Bible History II, citing the constitutional separation of church and state.

The county proposed to pay for the courses with about $180,000 in private donations. The courses were found to be too narrow — taking strictly a Protestant viewpoint — and the state asked the system to retool them and reapply to use the amended versions.

About 15 Tennessee school systems already have Bible courses. That caused the Shelby County School Board to raise the word "discrimination" and seek further explanation from the state.

Board member Joe Clayton said the board rejected the comparative religion course because members had not exhausted every avenue to try to get the Bible courses. Clayton said the alternative religion course should not have been presented to the board in the first place.

"I'm not interested in a substitute for that until we go the whole route," Clayton said. "You can't find another book that would be any more acceptable, that I know of, in history or literature. It's got some beautiful literature in there, and it's certainly got history."

The history part is what upset Cheri DelBrocco.

"Teaching the Bible as historical fact is just flat out illegal," said DelBrocco, president of the Public Issues Forum, a First Amendment watchdog group. "If this is legal, why would it have to be paid for with private donations? They know what the law is and they are trying to skirt it."

Bunker stood by his comments, saying he will remain on the board "and assure the rest of the community that I am going to be there to protect our children from these types of teachings."


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