Tennessee law allows creationism theory in classrooms
By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE, Tenn | Tue Apr 10, 2012 8:06pm EDT
(Reuters) - Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam on Tuesday refused to sign a bill that would permit discussion of creationism in classrooms alongside the traditional evolutionary-based explanation of the origins of life, but allowed it to become law anyway.
The legislation, dubbed the "Monkey Bill" by critics, had sailed through the conservative-leaning state's Republican-dominated legislature.
Haslam, a Republican, earlier had said he would sign the bill despite his misgivings about its impact on the state's science curriculum. After a petition drive against the proposed legislation, he chose to let it become law without his signature.
"I do not believe that this legislation changes the scientific standards that are taught in our schools or the curriculum," Haslam said on Tuesday. "I also don't believe that it accomplishes anything ..."
Haslam could have vetoed the bill. The legislature, however, could override the veto with a simple majority.
Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the state teachers union opposed the bill, which requires teachers to permit a discussion of alternative theories to evolution as well as other issues such as global warming.
Teachers are not allowed to raise the alternative theories but must explore them if mentioned.
Critics said the bill provides a way to bring creationism - the belief that life on Earth was created by God - into science classes and have drawn comparisons with the so-called "Monkey Trial" of 1925 in which a Tennessee teacher was accused of violating state law by teaching that life evolved over time.
"With all the emphasis now on science, math and technology, this seems like a real step backwards," Jerry Winters, director of government relations for the Tennessee Education Association, said in an interview with Reuters.
"Tennessee was the focus of this debate in the 1920s and we don't need to be turning the clock back now," Winters said.
"The Scopes Monkey Trial," held in the east Tennessee city of Dayton, drew national attention as defense attorney Clarence Darrow and prosecutor William Jennings Bryan debated teacher John Scopes' right to teach evolution in violation of state law.
Scopes was found guilty, but the verdict was overturned in the state Supreme Court.
(Reporting By Tim Ghianni; Editing by Mary Wisniewski, Greg McCune and Paul Simao)
Tennessee ‘monkey bill’ becomes law
A second US state lets schools ‘teach the controversy’ surrounding politically charged topics in science.
11 April 2012
The governor of Tennessee has allowed the passage of the 'monkey bill', giving public-school teachers licence to teach alternatives to those mainstream scientific theories often attacked by religious and political conservatives.
Nicknamed after the ‘monkey trial’ of 1925, in which Tennessee prosecuted high-school science teacher John Scopes for violating a state law against teaching evolution, the new measure allows public-school teachers to “help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories”. Biological evolution, global warming, the chemical origins of life and human cloning are listed as examples of such theories.
The legislation, which was passed in both houses of the Republican-controlled state legislature with strong margins, was sent to Governor William Haslam, also a Republican, on 29 March. He neither signed nor vetoed the bill, so it automatically became law on 10 April.
“I do not believe that this legislation changes the scientific standards that are taught in our schools or the curriculum that is used by our teachers,” Haslam said in a written statement explaining his equivocal stance. “However, I also don’t believe that it accomplishes anything that isn’t already acceptable in our schools.”
Proponents of the law, House Bill (HB) 368/Senate Bill 893, maintain that its purpose is simply to encourage scepticism and evidence-based reasoning. “Critical thinking fosters good science,” said Robin Zimmer, a biotechnology consultant and affiliate of the creationist Center for Faith and Science International in Knoxville, at a legislative hearing on 2 March, 2011.
But opponents say that the real goal of the bill is apparent from the list of subjects it singles out. “HB 368 and other bills like it are a permission slip for teachers to bring creationism, climate-change denial and other non-science into science classrooms,” says Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) in Oakland, California.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Association of Biology Teachers have also denounced the measure, as have 4,400 Tennessee residents — many of them scientists — who on 5 April submitted a petition asking Haslam to veto the bill. The bill’s critics see it as a classic ‘academic-freedom’ measure aimed at giving teachers licence to treat evolution as a matter of scientific controversy. In recent years, the Discovery Institute, an intelligent-design advocacy group based in Seattle, Washington, has championed this approach as a strategic way around a prohibition on promoting religion in US public schools. That barrier, based on the separation of church and state in the US constitution, has thwarted previous efforts to mandate the teaching of creationism-like alternatives alongside evolution but it has not yet been tested against an 'academic freedom' law. The Tennessee measure is only the second such law to be passed in the United States — Louisiana enacted the first in 2008 — but ten states have considered them in the past two years.
It is hard to predict the new law’s real-world effects. “Curriculum decisions are made district by district and classroom by classroom,” points out Josh Rosenau, director of programmes and policy at the NCSE. According to Barbara Forrest, a philosopher at the Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond and co-founder of the Louisiana Coalition for Science, the 2008 Louisiana law “has produced unintended changes in the state board of education’s implementation policy, which now doesn’t prohibit discussion of creationism or intelligent design and allows local school boards to select textbooks outside of those approved by the state”.
But in Tennessee, unlike in Louisiana, the law requires teachers to stay within the state science curriculum. So the ramifications of the law will depend on how local teachers and school boards interpret that requirement. “There are school districts in Tennessee that don’t pay any attention to the state curriculum,” says Timothy Gaudin, a biologist at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga. “So there are some people who are going to do what they want to do no matter what.”
Gaudin and Cone agree that the law could cost Tennessee dearly if parents sue — which they might have grounds to do. The US Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that the mandated teaching of creationism alongside the theory of evolution in public classrooms was unconstitutional. So far, no one has challenged Louisiana’s law in court.
For that reason, says Rosenau, “my guess is that the greatest practical effect will actually be on the climate-change and human-cloning fronts rather than evolution, because there’s no constitutional issue on those subjects”.
Whatever happens, says Scott, Tennessee’s law will be closely watched. “Just as the Tennessee bill was inspired by a similar law in Louisiana,” she says, “the Tennessee bill would surely inspire other states to go down this same dangerous path.”