Proposed bill's intention is to push a religious agenda
Written by Hedy Weinberg 2:33 AM, Mar. 11, 2011|
Eighty-six years ago, on March 13, 1925, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the Butler Act making it "unlawful … to teach any theory that denies the story of the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.'' Although the Butler Act was repealed in 1967, the Tennessee General Assembly is now deliberating about legislation that would allow public school science teachers to teach religious doctrine about the origin of humankind. Contrary to the bill's sponsors, the sole purpose of HB368/SB893 is to thwart the teaching of the theory of evolution. Tennessee has long been involved in a curriculum struggle about teaching science and religion in public schools. In the well known "Scopes Monkey Trial,'' American Civil Liberties Union volunteer attorney Clarence Darrow represented high school teacher John Scopes who had violated the Butler Act by teaching the theory of evolution. The anti-evolutionists won the case and the Butler Act remained in place for four decades.
Six years after the repeal of the Butler Act, the state legislature again tried to suppress the teaching of the theory of evolution in public schools; they passed a statute barring public school use of any textbook teaching the theory of evolution "unless it specifically stated that it is a theory as to the origin and creation of man and his world and is not represented to be scientific fact'' and unless equal time was devoted to creationism. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit flatly rejected the law, holding that it was "obviously in violation of the First Amendment.'' Since then, the federal courts have been unequivocally clear that efforts to inject religious beliefs regarding the origin of life into public school science curricula are unconstitutional. HB368/SB893 is the latest line of attack against the theory of evolution. Under the pretext of fostering "academic freedom'' and "critical thinking,'' the legislation would authorize teachers to present lessons regarding so-called "scientific controversies,'' calling into question the
validity of the scientific theory of evolution by examining its alleged "strengths'' and "weaknesses.''
Bill will harm students
No one doubts the value of critical thinking to any serious course of scientific study, but this legislation is not aimed at developing 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 regarding the origin of life as pseudo-science. By allowing teachers to deviate from this science curriculum, we take the risk that our students will be unprepared for advanced college coursework in science, and we disadvantage them in our increasingly competitive global economy. Passage of this legislation will have serious consequences for the future well-being of our children, our economy and our state overall. As the Supreme Court explained in Edwards v. Aguillard, "(f)amilies entrust public schools with the education of their children, but condition their trust on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family.'' We also entrust the public schools to prepare our children for higher education and success in the job market. HB 368 and SB 893 represent a betrayal of that trust and must be rejected by our
legislature. Hedy Weinberg is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union — Tennessee.