April 5, 2012

By Hedy Weinberg

Tennessee is dangerously close to enacting a law that would gut science education in public schools. The "Monkey Bill" sailed through the Legislature and is now on Gov. Bill Haslam's desk awaiting his review. The bill is adapted from a template offered by the conservative, Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which promotes intelligent design. As a force for moderation, Haslam should veto this legislation.

Under the pretext of fostering critical thinking, this legislation states that teachers must be allowed to discuss "weaknesses" in scientific theories such as evolution and other scientific subjects that "cause debate and disputation" — calling their validity into question.

No one doubts the value of critical thinking to any serious course of scientific study, but this legislation 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. Terms such as "strengths and weaknesses" and "critical thinking" are frequently used by those seeking to introduce nonscientific ideas such as creationism and intelligent design into the science curriculum.

Prestigious scientific and educational organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the National Earth Science Teachers Association and the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, agree that there is no scientific controversy regarding the theory of evolution, only a political controversy that does not belong in the science classroom.

Tennessee has long been involved in a struggle about teaching science and religion in public schools. Eighty-seven years ago, on March 13, 1925, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the Butler Act, making it unlawful to teach evolution. In the well-known "Scopes Monkey Trial" that followed, American Civil Liberties Union volunteer attorney Clarence Darrow represented high school teacher John Scopes when he violated the Butler Act. The anti-evolutionists won and the Butler Act remained in place until repealed in 1967.

Six years later, the state Legislature passed a statute barring public school use of any textbook teaching the theory of evolution unless it was "not represented to be scientific fact'' and equal time was devoted to creationism. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit flatly rejected the law, holding that it was "obviously in violation of the First Amendment." Since then, federal courts have been clear that efforts to inject religious beliefs regarding the origin of life into public school science curricula are unconstitutional no matter what form they may take.

By allowing teachers to deviate from the established science curriculum, we take the risk that our students will be unprepared for advanced college work and at a disadvantage in our increasingly global economy. Tennessee may also be less appealing to employers offering science-based jobs. This bill could have serious consequences for the future well-being of our children and our economy and our state overall.

This legislation is the latest line of attack against evolution in a long-standing campaign waged by certain religious interests to promote creationism and intelligent design in Tennessee public schools. As the Supreme Court has stated, families "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." This legislation represents a betrayal of that trust and, accordingly, Haslam must veto it.

Hedy Weinberg is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.

This op-ed appeared in the Knoxville News-Sentinel on April 5, 2012.