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Tennessee to Include Sikhism in Public School Standards

The Tennessee Board of Education approved new Social Studies standards that would include Sikhism in its public schools.
Image: Sikhs gather for a parade
Participants gather for a parade to celebrate the US Independence Day on July 4, 2017 in Washington, DC.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

The Tennessee State Board of Education last week approved new social studies standards that, for the first time ever, include Sikhism — a decision Sikhs viewed as a victory in combating bias, discrimination, and violence against the Sikh community.

“This is a good step forward,” Rajdeep Singh, interim managing director of programs at the Sikh Coalition, which advocated for the inclusion of Sikhism in the revised standards, told NBC News. “In the post-9/11 environment, Sikhs have experienced school bullying, discrimination in the workplace, and hate crimes because of the way they look and because of ignorance of who we are and what we believe.”

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The Sikh Coalition first requested for the inclusion of Sikhism in October 2016, citing that it is the world's fifth largest religion with more than 25 million who practice it globally. The request, however, was initially denied, but the group appealed the decision in June, arguing that Sikhism is the only major world religion absent from the standards. Advocates rallied with interfaith groups and Tennessee gurdwaras, and last month, the Board of Education approved the inclusion of Sikhism as part of the existing list of major world religions in its revised standards.

“It is important that the students of Tennessee receive a well-rounded and thorough social studies education,” Amy Own, director of policy and research at the Tennessee State Board of Education, told NBC News in an email. “We are appreciative that so many stakeholders participated in the standards review process, including members of the Sikh community here in Tennessee, to ensure a comprehensive, quality education for every Tennessee student.”

Singh noted that the goal of including Sikhism in the standards is not to teach the religion in schools, but to recognize that Sikhs are a part of the United States and have been a presence in the country for more than a century. Including Sikhism would also highlight the challenges that have and continue to face the community.

“The state standards work we’re doing … is not an academic exercise. We’re trying to help children feel a sense of belonging."

He added that Sikhism appears once in the new standards and in the context of an elective course about contemporary issues. “[The way] students would learn about major world religions, they will also learn about the contributions Sikhs have made to the world and U.S. History,” Singh said.

The Sikh Coalition has worked with other states — including California, Idaho, New Jersey, New York and Texas — to include Sikhism in public school curricula.

An estimated 500,000 Sikhs live in the United States, a figure that Singh said is based on the number of gurdwaras in the United States.

In a 2014 study conducted by the Sikh Coalition, it was found that up to 67 percent of Sikh children have said they experienced bullying at school because of their religion. Some reported instances of physical violence, including removal of their turbans by force.

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When children were asked what they feel needs to be done to address these issues, they consistently said they wished their peers learned about Sikhism and what Sikhs stand for, Singh said.

“The state standards work we’re doing … is not an academic exercise. We’re trying to help children feel a sense of belonging,” he said.

The Tennessee State Board of Education's decision to include Sikhism in its revised standards comes as the Sikh community remembers the fifth anniversary of the Oak Creek shooting that left six dead and several others permanently injured.

“This is the kind of thing we want emphasized in history books because the Oak Creek attack was one of the world's most lethal attacks in a place of worship in all of American history,” Singh said.

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