The latest on Tennessee's antievolution bills


Tennessee's Senate Bill 893 was discussed, but not voted on, by the Senate Education Committee on March 30, 2011. The Chattanooga Times Free Press (March 31, 2011) reported that its sponsor Bo Watson (R-District 11) denied that SB 893 — recently dubbed "the monkey bill" by a fellow legislator — attacks evolution. But high school biology teacher Wesley Roberts, who testified against the bill, told the committee, "part of our rich cultural history in Tennessee is opposition to evolution education. This bill is part of that tradition. It is not inviting students to discuss the controversy of the Vietnam war. It's not encouraging students to discuss the true value of pi. It's aimed at science and evolution."

Speaking to reporters afterward, Watson acknowledged, "evolution is the most legitimate scientific process that we have to explain how the world works around us," but claimed "there are competing ideas" such as creationism. "They may not meet the scientific standard," Watson was quoted as saying, "but if they come up in a science class ... and it's not listed in the state's curriculum, a teacher should not be off-putting and say that's not in the curriculum — if you want to talk about intelligent design you should go down the hall to the religious studies class. Teachers should be able to say, look, there are people who view that as a competing idea."

House Bill 368, the counterpart of SB 893, passed the House Education Committee on March 29, 2011, and referred to the House Calendar and Rules Committee, chaired by its sponsor Bill Dunn (R-District 16). In a stinging editorial published the same day, the Nashville Tennessean (March 29, 2011) denounced the antievolution legislation in Tennessee, writing, "when a piece of legislation is so distorted in fact, so misleading in its intent, and so fraught with the potential to do more harm than good to the people and the reputation of Tennessee, it must be shown for what it is," and describing it as "not only an attack on science but on First Amendment guarantees of speech and religious freedoms."

A later article in The Tennessean (April 3, 2011) — headlined "TN bill would let God into science classrooms" — discussed the legislation in the context of the state science standards, which include evolution but not creationism. Bo Watson told the newspaper, "Teachers should be able to answer [questions] without feeling they violate the curriculum standards," but Molly Miller, a professor of geology at Vanderbilt University, who testified against SB 893, told the Senate Education Committee, "This bill is unnecessary ... Teachers are already mandated to teach all sides of scientific controversies. Why should legislators change the science standards, overruling those that worked hard?"