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Tennessee's 'Monkey Bill' Will Protect Anti-Science Teachers

Common Dreams staff

An anti-evolution league holds a book sale at the opening of the Scopes 'monkey' trial in 1925, when a Tennessee public school teacher was convicted and fined for teaching evolution. Photograph: Corbis

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is likely to sign into law a bill requiring Tennessee's public schools to allow teachers to discuss purported weaknesses of theories such as evolution and global warming in their classrooms. Haslam has until Tuesday to sign the bill, veto it, or allow it to become law without his signature.

Opponents, including science organizations, teacher groups and the ACLU, argue the law -- SB 893, "The Monkey Bill" -- injects religion into public education and raises the specter of the 1925 "Scopes Monkey Trial", when a high-school science teacher in Tennessee was convicted of teaching evolution. The conviction was later overturned on a technicality. The statute prohibiting the teaching of evolution remained on Tennessee's books until it was repealed in 1967.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union have pressured Haslam to reject the bill, which they believe is an unconstitutional and unwise gateway for the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in public schools.

The bill is "very clever" in its wording, but its hidden agenda is to "inject religious beliefs into scientific curriculum," said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. "It would clearly gut science education in our schools," she said, adding it recalls the era when the teaching of evolution was forbidden in Tennessee.

The bill has been condemned by several national science education organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as by Tennessee members of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Concepts like evolution and climate change should not be misrepresented as controversial or needing of special evaluation. Instead, they should be presented as scientific explanations for events and processes that are supported by experimentation, logical analysis, and evidence-based revision based on detectable and measurable data," the National Association of Biology Teachers said.

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McClatchy Newspapers report:

Tennessee is poised to adopt a law that would allow public school teachers to challenge climate change and evolution in their classrooms without fear of sanction, according to educators and civil libertarians in the state.

Tennessee was the site of the 1925 "Scopes monkey trial," during which a high school science teacher was tried for violating a state law banning the teaching of evolution. Critics of the new law have called it a "monkey bill," asserting that it is a throwback to that earlier era of science denial.Passed by the state Legislature and awaiting Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's signature, the measure is likely to stoke growing concerns among science teachers around the country that teaching climate science is becoming the same kind of classroom and community flash point as evolution. If it becomes law, Tennessee will become the second state, after Louisiana, to allow the teaching of alternatives to accepted science on climate change.

The Tennessee measure does not require the teaching of alternatives to scientific theories of evolution, climate change, human cloning and "the chemical origins of life." Instead, the legislation would prevent school administrators from reining in teachers who expound on alternative hypotheses. [...]

The bill's critics, which include the Tennessee Science Teachers Association and the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, counter that teachers currently have no problem addressing unconventional ideas and challenges students bring up. They argue, instead, that the measure gives legal cover to teachers to introduce pseudo-scientific ideas to students, and they have asked the governor to veto it.

"Our fear is that there are communities across this state where schools are very small and one teacher is the science department, and they also happen to teach a Sunday school class, and this gives them permission to bring that into the classroom," said Becky Ashe, president of the state science teachers association. "It's a floodgate."

Tennessee was the site of the 1925 "Scopes monkey trial," during which a high school science teacher was tried for violating a state law banning the teaching of evolution. Critics of the new law have called it a "monkey bill," asserting that it is a throwback to that earlier era of science denial.

Critics' concerns have been heightened because the education bill originated with the Family Action Council of Tennessee, or FACT, a conservative Christian group based in Franklin. The council's president, David Fowler, did not respond to requests for comment on the bill. Watson said Fowler "did discuss this bill with me and brought the original bill. The amendment to the bill, which replaces the original bill, was my work, however."

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