Tennessee Evolution Bill to Take Effect

Tennessee, the state of the infamous Scopes "Monkey Trial" in 1925, whereby John Scopes, a Biology teacher, was convicted and fined $100 for violating a state statute which prohibited teaching evolution, is paced to make evolutionary history again. (The original case was overturned by the Supreme Court on a technicality a year later, the legacy of the ordeal remained. The law was later repealed in 1967.)

Due to the governor's decision to neither sign nor veto what some are calling a "Monkey Law," after April 20, teachers will be required to discuss alternative theories to evolution or even global warming, should students raise questions.

Although Governor Bill Haslam generally supports the provision, he has decided to let the law take effect on its own, rather than signing it or vetoing it. Haslam stated that, "The bill received strong bipartisan support, passing the House and Senate ... but good legislation should bring clarity and not confusion[.] My concern is that this bill has not met this objective." He also stated that, "I do not believe that this legislation changes the scientific standards that are taught in our schools or the curriculum."

Proponents argue that the law would allow for teachers to encourage critical thinking, as students are able to point out "strengths and weaknesses" of these theories, and potentially engage other students in a discussion.

The Governor has received over 3,000 letters telling him to veto the bill. Opponents fear that the measure could open the door for religious instruction, such as creationism and intelligent design, in the classroom. Many also argue that scientific theories are not the proper target of these types of attacks, considering the proferred alternative is religious beliefs.

The law requires teachers to permit a discussion of theories alternative to evolution, and even other issues such as global warming, if students broach the subject.

What I find peculiar about this law, is that it requires a discussion of a particular area of studies. Generally speaking, classrooms are an area where Freedom of Speech is not checked at the door, obscenity restrictions nonwithstanding. Thus, in the ordinary course of discussion, if a student asked a teacher a question on the matter, the teacher would respond with whatever knowledge or experience he or she drew from.

Here, however, by requiring the teacher to engage the student in their criticism, it seems to provide those religious alternatives with an equal footing in the classroom. The main potential problem with that is that the First Amendment precludes states from not only passing laws restricting religious practices, but also from passing laws that establish them. By requiring teachers to launch into these discussion whenever the topic is broached, Tennessee may be come into contravention with such Establishment Clause issues.