On March 29th, the Tennessee General Assembly transmitted House Bill 368 to Governor Haslam’s office, where it awaits his signature. The legislation — christened the “Monkey Bill” by the media — has been met with much controversy since its introduction last spring, with the National Center for Science Education, the ACLU and Vanderbilt Professor Larisa DeSantis among its most outspoken critics. Robert Luhn, the director of Communications for the NCSE, has, I think, correctly identified the “primary aim” of the bill’s sponsors as being to “gut the teaching of evolution in public schools,” but whether the language of the bill really accomplishes as much still remains in question. At an April 2nd press conference, Haslam told reporters that he probably would sign the bill precisely because State Board of Education officials had assured him that the bill will not actually change the state curriculum.
By deriding it as a “Monkey Bill,” opponents of HB368/SB893 have succeeded in getting the public to associate this legislation with the infamous Butler Act and the Scopes Trial of 1925 that earned Tennessee her reputation as a bastion for backwardness and scientific illiteracy, which conservative Tennessee politicians have been struggling to live up to ever since. However, the bill’s language does not seem to actually give teachers the leeway to introduce creationism or any other religious doctrine in science classrooms; stripped of its authors’ motivations, the bill’s call to encourage “students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, [and] develop critical thinking skills” might even seem like a noble move toward promoting free inquiry in the classroom.
Nevertheless, last April, several of the bill’s own supporters seemed to be trying their hardest to give the impression that they harbor theocratic aspirations. Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, demanded to know how evolution could be taught as a “fact” since it had “never been proven,” and Sheila Butt, R-Columbia, said that she is “tired of people saying if you don’t completely accept the theory of evolution, you are not very bright.”
Last May, I interviewed HB368 co-sponsor Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, who very quickly dismissed his peers’ public statements, saying that Faison “as well as many others do not understand the intent of this bill.” According to Casada, the bill would only promote academic freedom in the broadest sense by ensuring that “all theories are to be welcomed” in the classroom. When I then asked whether he would consider Intelligent Design to be a credible scientific theory, he replied that, in his view, “it does qualify as a theory,” and while intelligent design ought not to be taught as a fact, “until evolution is proven in a lab, neither should evolution be taught as a fact.” When I inquired as to Casada’s thoughts on the Miller-Urey experiment and related laboratory studies, he declined to comment. Notably, Faison and Casada both agreed that “belief in evolution is a faith/religion,” which makes me wonder what they think of the clause in HB368 which prohibits “religious or non-religious doctrine(s)” from being taught in the classroom.
I next contacted the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knox, who assured me that Casada, too, misunderstood the purpose of the bill and told me to look no further than the text of the bill in order to understand its implications. One clause of the bill requires that teachers “respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues,” which sounds like a fine enough goal but seems like it could get messy should teachers and students disagree over fundamental questions of what it means for something to be a scientific fact. Dunn said that teachers would only be protected so long as their lesson-plan “consists of objective, scientific facts,” and he thinks that scientists should be rather pleased to see such guardrails in place.
So at the end of the day I’m left questioning just what problem the legislators who pushed HB368 think they’re solving. The 30-minute debate over the legislation consisted mostly of legislators like Butt channeling Kirk Cameron and Ben Stein as they appealed to the vernacular sense of the word “theory” and claimed that science teachers shouldn’t be forced to teach evolution as a fact. Because these representatives have such skewed notions of what it means for a theory to withstand scientific rigor, I doubt that what they would like for the bill to do will have any impact on how the bill functions in practice. The state curriculum already bars pseudo-science from the classroom, but the legislators supporting HB368/SB893 think that their bill might shed light on some unspoken weaknesses of evolutionary theory currently being covered up in the classroom. While I don’t think the bill will open the door for creationism being included in the curriculum, there’s a chance, however slight, that it might shield teachers who already secretly teach intelligent design or creationism in less supervised school districts. Given 2005’s Kitzmiller v. Dover decision, I doubt that the bill could survive a constitutional challenge if it were used in that way.
It’s hard not to wonder why Haslam wouldn’t just save the state the time and energy defending the bill by refusing to sign it. When asked why he would refuse to veto a measure that he does not think will accomplish anything positive, Governor Haslam made a fair point, noting that even the General Assembly’s wackiest legislation passes with overwhelming majorities, so his vetoes would very easily be overridden. Still, I think Haslam should try to salvage what remains of his credibility, even if his veto only serves as a statement to the legislature to start working on issues that have some substance next session.
—Eric Lyons is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Science. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.