By David Zucchino
April 11, 2012, 9:31 a.m.
Discussion of creationism in public school classrooms in Tennessee will now be permitted under a bill that passed the Republican-controlled state Legislature despite opposition from the state’s Republican governor.
The measure will allow classroom debates over evolution, permitting discussions of creationism alongside evolutionary teachings about the origins of life. Critics say the law, disparagingly called "The Monkey Bill," will plunge Tennessee back to the divisive days of the notorious Scopes "Monkey Trial’’ in Dayton, Tenn., in 1925.
Gov. Bill Haslam refused Tuesday to sign the bill, saying it would create confusion over schools’ science curriculum. But the bill became law anyway. Haslam said he decided not to use his veto power, because the Legislature had the votes to override a veto. The measure passed by a 3-to-1 margin.
"Good legislation should bring clarity and not confusion,’’ Haslam said, according to Reuters. "My concern is that this bill has not met this objective.’’
The governor added: "I don’t believe that it accomplishes anything that isn’t already acceptable in our schools.’’
The state’s teachers are not allowed to raise alternatives to evolution but, under the new law, would be required to permit discussion of creationism and other beliefs if they are raised in class. The law would also permit discussion of challenges to such scientific conclusions as the man-made effects of climate change.
The law’s proponents say it will encourage critical thinking among students and protect teachers who do not believe in evolution, according to the Associated Press.
Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Tennessee’s largest teachers’ association, say it will permit teaching creationism as fact.
"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, told Reuters. "Tennessee was the focus of this debate in the 1920s and we don’t need to be turning the clock back now.’’
In the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, Tennessee high school teacher John Scopes was convicted of violating a state law against teaching evolution in state schools; he was defended by Clarence Darrow and prosecuted by William Jennings Bryan. The conviction was later overturned.
Eight members of the National Academy of Sciences from Tennessee, including a Vanderbilt University Nobel laureate, signed a letter urging the Legislature to vote against the bill, saying it would damage the state’s reputation and harm Tennessee’s effort to recruit science and technical companies.
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told the Nashville Tennessean that the bill was designed to undercut teaching about evolution, despite claims that it encourages critical thinking.
"This has always been a way for teachers to interject their religious viewpoints if they contradict evolution,’’ Lynn said.