» By PHILIP SPARN – psparn@my.apsu.edu

Similar to the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial,” the state of Tennessee is again at the center of a controversy regarding the teaching of evolution and other scientific theories in public schools.

The Tennessee Legislature recently passed a controversial law that changes the instructional measures for elementary and secondary school science teachers in Tennessee.

The new law, known as the evolution or “monkey” bill, officially named HB 368/SB 893, protects science teachers who encourage their students to analyze, critique and review the strengths and weaknesses of controversial scientific theories, such as the origins of life, evolution, global warming and cloning.

While some state legislators suggest the new law protects teachers and students’ rights, this new law has also sparked a national controversy and has generated great apprehensions among the science community.

“I don’t think the new law does anything positive for Tennessee’s education,” said James Thompson, professor of biology and evolution at APSU. “Saying that well-proven and widely acknowledged scientific theories are controversial is typically code to introduce nonscientific ideas, like creationism and intelligent design, into the science curriculum … Even most Christian denominations consider these so called ‘controversial’ theories as accepted and recognized scientific theories.”

According to Brent Leatherwood, communications director for the Tennessee House Majority Republican Party, this law provides clarity and protection for teachers to be able to foster flexibility when teaching controversial scientific theories.

“This bill gives guidelines for teachers so they will be protected from punishment as long as they stick with objective, scientific facts when discussing this subject,” Leatherwood said.

According to a statement released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, this law threatens to undermine science and science education across the state and could open the door for some teachers to inject religious or nonscientific ideas into Tennessee’s science curriculum and classrooms.

The ACLU of Tennessee also raises concerns that this bill will harm students’ future academic and professional success and allow students’ constitutional rights to be violated.

Thompson pointed out, ever since the Scopes “monkey trial” in 1925, there have been well-funded anti-science groups, mostly made up of lawyer-savvy Christian fundamentalists, who have continuously attempted to inject their own religious principles into our laws. According to Thompson, these fundamentalist groups have also made repeated attempts to alter the scientific teaching of evolution, in order to include the religious introductions of creationism or intelligent design.

Leatherwood suggests the new law does not infringe on anyone’s religious liberties.

“The bill does not protect a particular ideology nor does it change any education curriculum,” Leatherwood said. “At the end of the day, it is a simple law that respects the First Amendment by protecting the right of all views to be expressed in the classroom.”

State Rep. Joe Pitts, D-Clarksville and member of the Tennessee House Education Committee, voted against the passing of this bill and suggested the new law was a solution looking for a problem.

“I do not believe the Legislature should not be writing or manipulating the science curriculum for our schools,” Pitts said. “That task is best left to the professionals. Opponents of this law view it as the landmark Monkey Scopes Trial revisited, but it is really just another effort by some to use their power, just because they can.”

David Kanervo, chair of the Political Science Department points to recent studies by the Fordham Institute, a conservative education research organization, which gives Tennessee’s science standards a grade of a D and total score of four out of 10. The Fordham Institute points to vague science standards and curriculum that fails to adequately address life sciences and poor treatment of scientific theories such as evolution, as contributing reasons for the low marks.

Kanervo believes this new law has a small chance to allow room for some teachers to inject their own religious beliefs into the classroom discussion, as some people fear. However, Kanervo also believes this new law could possibly help evolution and other controversial scientific theories be further discussed and ultimately further understood by Tennessee science students.

“Having an open and scientific review of controversial issues in science classes could help bring this issue to the table for further and more in-depth discussions, which is definitely needed in Tennessee, considering the state’s poor scores and lack of focus on these issues,” Kanervo said.

Both Thompson and numerous professional science organizations have sent letters to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and members of the Tennessee Legislature urging them to vote against or veto the bill because they fear the law will allow infringements on recognized and accepted science curriculum.

Haslam did not sign the bill, but the bill passed into law by default because Haslam did not veto the bill within 10 days of passage, in accordance with Tennessee law. Haslam pointed out in a recent statement the bill does not accomplish anything that is not already acceptable in our schools.

“Good legislation should bring clarity and not confusion,” Haslam said in a recent statement. “My concern is that this bill has not met this objective. For that reason, I will not sign the bill but will allow it to become law without my signature.”

The ACLU, along with other civil liberty and religious freedom organizations, have suggested this law was passed on shaky constitutional grounds and these groups have proposed they will challenge the constitutionality of the new law in court. TAS