published Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam doesn't sign evolution bill, but it's still law

Republican Governor Bill Haslam is pictured in this file photo.
Republican Governor Bill Haslam is pictured in this file photo.
Photo by Associated Press.

Interested in reading the amendment to Senate Bill 893 which is now the law?

Go to www.capitol.tn.gov/Bills/107/Amend/SA0901.pdf

NASHVILLE — A controversial bill protecting teachers' classroom discussions of "weaknesses" in evolution and other scientific theories became Tennessee law Tuesday without the signature of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Haslam, a Republican, said that while he doesn't think the bill changes scientific standards or the state's educational curriculum, he also believes "good legislation should bring clarity and not confusion."

"My concern is that this bill has not met this objective," Haslam said in his statement. "For that reason, I will not sign the bill but will allow it to become law without my signature."

Haslam had previously said he "probably" would sign the legislation, sponsored in the Senate by Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson. The legislation passed the Republican-controlled House and Senate by better than two-thirds margins with a number of Democrats backing it.

Instead, under mounting criticism from Tennessee-based scientists as well as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a 3,200-signature petition urging him to veto the measure, he opted to let the bill become law without his signature.

It's the first time Haslam has refused to sign a bill.

Watson, who has a bachelor's degree in biology, said that's OK with him. But he charged that any confusion about the legislation's purpose "comes from the opponents of the bill who have mischaracterized a lot of what the law would actually do."

"And look," Watson added, "the bill wasn't part of the governor's education package, so I can see where the governor would look at this legislation and say, 'Look, this isn't my idea. This is the legislature's idea.'"

People shouldn't lose sight of the fact, Watson said, that the bill requires all discussions to take place within the state's science "curriculum framework."

The executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Tennessee, Hedy Weinberg, said the governor "understood that this legislation would undermine science education in Tennessee public schools. His hands were tied, I suppose, since a governor's veto power is weak and it was clear there was a super majority [passing the measure] and it only takes a majority to override."

She said while Haslam deserves credit "for showing leadership in not signing the legislation, that doesn't change the fact that Tennessee has a law now on the books that effectively grants teachers the permission to violate the First Amendment by injecting their own religious beliefs into the science classroom when discussing the origins of life."

The ACLU "will closely monitor the implementation of this," Weinberg said. "We've already been contacted by families across the state who are concerned about this new law. We anticipate we will hear about scenarios that will underscore the law was a bad idea to begin with."

The law's House sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, said, "I'm glad it becomes law because now we have the opportunity to show everybody it doesn't do what the ACLU has said it's going to do. Maybe a year from now we do a story that says science is alive and well in Tennessee."

Josh Rosenau from the National Center for Science Education said the law could frame perceptions of others outside Tennessee.

"I think two 'monkey bills' in a century has got to be up there in terms of how people see Tennessee, and that's unfortunate because there's great science that goes on there," he said.

In 1925, Tennessee drew national attention and ridicule when a new law that banned the teaching of evolution in public schools resulted in the arrest and trial of John Scopes in Dayton, Tenn. It was dubbed the "Monkey Trial." Scopes was convicted but the conviction was overturned later on a technicality.

Louisiana is the only state with a law similar to what Tennessee now has, Rosenau said.

Watson noted that the preamble to the legislation, which has attracted much criticism, isn't in the actual law that took affect Tuesday.

The preamble says the teaching of some scientific subjects under the state's curriculum framework "may cause debate and disputation" including but not limited to evolution, the "chemical origins of life," global warming and human cloning.

The law's provisions make no mention of those particular topics but does continue to say state and local school authorities cannot "prohibit any teacher in a public school system ... from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing theories covered in the course being taught within" the state's "curriculum framework."

It also says the law "only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion."

While scientists and other critics say the legislation is a backdoor attack on well-established science, Watson said he hopes it will lead to more student interest in science.

"One of the things about science is we can't get enough students to go into and enjoy science," he said.

"And perhaps if science classes allow for less rote memorization and student regurgitation and more discussion, students might get excited about science and understand that it's not just about memorizing facts and data -- that actually there is debate and conversation that occurs in the science class."

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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