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Evolution Debate in Tennessee (5/08/12)

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Recent Action

On April 10, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam decided not to act on House Bill 368, effectively allowing the bill to become state law. The law allows Tennessee public school teachers to challenge controversial topics in science including global warming, evolution, and human cloning which arouse “debate and disputation” with agendas and opinions that are not science-based and may come from well-funded outside sources.

The legislation prevents teachers from being disciplined for speaking out against proven scientific findings and requires the state board of education to provide teachers with “effective ways to present the scientific curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies” such as global warming, evolution, and human cloning. Haslam did not believe the bill will change the Tennessee public school curriculum.  The National Academy of Sciences, the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and others have spoken out against the law and believe it may affect teaching in the state. The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) tracks challenges to science education and has more information about the new Tennessee law. (04/12)

Previous Action

The Tennessee Legislature has passed legislation to encourage teachers to present the “scientific strengths and weaknesses” of topics such as “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” The Tennessee House of Representatives passed House Bill (H.B.) 368 a week after its companion bill, Senate Bill (S.B.) 893, was passed on March 19, 2012. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has said that he will discuss the legislation with Tennessee’s state board of education before signing or vetoing the bill. A similar bill, H.B. 1551, passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives in March but will not see a vote in the State Senate.
There has been widespread backlash against S.B. 893 and H.B. 368. An editorial by the Nashville Tennessean from March 21, 2012 referred to the two bills as “monkey bills” and described them as “wedging open a door to include a radically divisive, ultra-conservative Christian agenda disguised in politically correct language.”  The National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT) and the National Earth Science Teachers Association wrote letters on behalf of their societies expressing their opposition to SB 893 and HB 368. NAGT writes that “rigorous science education in Tennessee is badly served by SB 893 or HB 368, and we urge Tennessee’s representatives, state senators, and governor to reject this legislation.” NESTA writes that the two bills “misrepresent key scientific concepts and principles, and would undermine the education of Tennessee’s students.” (03/12)

On April 7, 2011, the Tennessee House of Representatives passed the “anti-evolution” bill, HB 368, on a party-line vote. The bill would require education authorities to "assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies" and allow teachers to "help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught." The bill specifically identifies scientific topics of "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning." Tennessee State Senator Bo Watson, who had crafted a companion bill to HB 368, has officially tabled his legislation. Concern from local scientists convinced Watson to defer the bill.  (04/11)

On April 5, 2003, the board of education in Blount County rejected the adoption of three biology textbooks because they discuss evolution without mention of creationism. According to National Center for Science Education, the vote was 6-1. This is contrary to a report by the Maryville (TN) The Daily Times that the vote was 2-1 with four abstensions due to board members' reluctance to engage in the controversial issue. The rejected biology books were previously approved by the state and chosen by biology teachers. Board member Mike Treadway voted against the textbooks because he believes evolution should be taught as a theory along side creationism. It is now expected that high school science teachers will be asked to develop a new curriculum that includes creationism taught besides evolution, which would spur approval of the texts. (4/28/03)

Sources: American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Geophysical Union, Associated Press, Association for Women Geoscientists, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Duluth News Tribune, Kansas Geological Survey, Library of Congress, Maryville Tennessee Daily Times, National Academies, National Center for Science Education, National Science Teachers Association, Pioneer Press, Rocky Mountain News, Santa Fe New Mexican, WCCO-TV, The Dallas Morning News, The Austin American-Statesman, The Houston Chronicle.

Background section includes material from AGI's Update on State Challenges to the Teaching of Evolution for the 106th Congress.

Contributed by David Applegate and Emily Lehr, AGI Government Affairs Program, 2003 AGI/AAPG Spring Semester Intern Charna Meth, and 2003 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern Emily Scott.

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Last updated on May 8, 2012

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