Governor Haslam and The Scopes Trial

Sufei Wu

In early April of this year Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam (R) allowed a bill to become law without his signature for the first time in his career. Nicknamed the “monkey bill”, HB 368/SB 893 is aimed at protecting public school teachers with students who voice objection to topics, but not limited to: evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.

Many criticize that this bill gives public school teachers permission to deny the existence of such mainstream, but controversial, scientific theories. The “monkey bill” moniker intentionally recalls the 1925 “monkey trial” of high school science teacher John Scopes in Dayton, TN who was accused of violating a state law that prevented the teaching of evolution in state-funded schools.

Governor Haslam defended allowing the bill to pass by arguing that the bill does not change any of the scientific curriculums or standards already in place, nor does it grant privileges that are not already in place. Indeed, the bill requires teachers to follow the state science curriculum, so the actual effects of the bill remain open to interpretation.

This sets Tennessee apart from Louisiana, the only other state to pass such legislation, where there is no restriction to stay within state curriculum. Governor Haslam cited lack of clarity in the bill’s language as his reason for not signing it.

Proponents of the bill, including representatives from the creationist Center for Faith and Science International in Knoxville, TN, maintain that the law aims to develop critical thinking skills necessary for intelligent scientific pursuit. Critics from the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, CA respond that based on the specific topics singled out, the bill is meant to insert non-scientific topics into the classroom.

The US Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that mandated teaching of creationism along with evolution in public schools as unconstitutional, so intelligent design advocacy groups such as the Discovery Institute in Seattle, WA have encouraged bills such as HB 368/SB 893 as a strategy for encouraging religious education in schools. Due to the Supreme Court ruling, some say the effects of the bill may extend only to topics such as cloning and climate change.

Although ten other states have considered such legislation, Tennessee is only the second state to pass it. With the Scopes Trial and its legacy occupying a portion of national history, Tennessee should be wary of propagating a potentially “anti-evolution” reputation. While state science curriculum restrictions still apply, such legislation not only opens the state up to possibilities of lawsuits from disgruntled parents, it could also be detrimental to the pool of talented educators willing to teach in the state. Groups such as the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have urged Gov. Haslam to reject the bill, calling it unwise and unconstitutional. While the law doesn’t mandate the teaching of creationism, it provides a distinct message regarding Tennessee, its priorities, and the state of its public-school system.