Tenn. Senate passes evolution bill, 24-8

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Senate sponsor of a proposal that would protect teachers who allow students to criticize scientific theories like evolution says the legislation is necessary to help teachers know how to respond to questions about such subjects.

The measure was approved 24-8 in the Senate last evening. A similar version passed the House 70-23 last year.

The legislation says neither the Tennessee Board of Education nor local education officials will prohibit public school teachers from “helping students understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.”

Senate sponsor Bo Watson of Hixson says he’s heard from teachers who don’t know how to respond to students’ questions about scientific theories. He said the proposal would instruct them on how to respond within a curriculum established by the Board of Education.

“Teachers should be comfortable addressing students concerns about certain scientific theories,” Watson said.

However, state Sen. Andy Berke says he doesn’t think the proposal is necessary because “no one is expressing a great deal of concern or problems with this subject.”

“It is a mistake for our General Assembly to pass this bill,” the Chattanooga Democrat said.

The Senate version of the legislation differs slightly from the House bill in terms of language. For instance, the Senate bill says education officials will “assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum,” and removes the reference to scientific subjects as “controversial issues.”

Instead, the Senate bill says “scientific subjects that may cause debate and disputation.”

It has been almost 90 years since the famous Scopes “monkey trial” in Dayton, Tenn., and opponents of the legislation say evolution is still under attack.

The 1925 trial convicted school teacher John Scopes of violating state law by teaching evolution in biology class and fined him $100. The Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the verdict on a technicality a year later. In 1967, Tennessee’s anti-evolution law was revoked.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said scientists believe the proposed legislation would unfairly target evolution and possibly open the door for some religious teachings.

“Though bill sponsors say they responded to critics by amending the original language, their fix merely involves substituting ‘controversy’ with ‘debate’ and ‘disputation,’” Weinberg said in a prepared statement.

She also disputed sponsors’ claims that the legislation would improve students’ critical thinking skills.

“Rather, it seeks to subvert scientific principle to religious ideology by granting legal cover to teachers who wish to dress up religious beliefs on the origin of life as pseudo-science,” said Weinberg, adding that such legislation could actually hurt the state.

“Not only does legislation like this risk that our students will be at a disadvantage in our increasingly competitive global economy, but it will negatively impact the State’s ability to recruit high-tech industries and other businesses.”

As for the legislation possibly opening the door for religious doctrines, Watson said he doesn’t expect that to happen.

“This bill does not endorse, promote or allow the teaching of any non-scientific, non-conventional theories in a scientific classroom,” he said.

Gov. Bill Haslam, who spoke to reporters at a Nashville high school earlier yesterday, expressed confidence in the proper development of the curriculum.

“That’s why we have a State Board of Education,” he said.

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