NASHVILLE -- A controversial bill that protects teachers who discuss with students "weaknesses" in evolution and other scientific theories is on its way to Gov. Bill Haslam, who is under pressure from prominent scientists to veto it.
Scientists in Tennessee and across the nation charge the measure is a "backdoor" attempt to allow discussions of religion-based views such as "creationism" and "intelligent designs" in science classrooms.
The House approved the bill Monday night on a 72-23 vote that included changes made last week by the Senate bill's sponsor, Bo Watson, R-Hixson. There was no debate.
Watson has said he tried to address scientists' concerns with new language that directs science teachers to discuss evolution, climate change and other areas within the state's science education "framework."
The bill's thrust, said Watson, who majored in biology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, is that "students should be encouraged to challenge current scientific thought and theory. Students should be encouraged to debate, to improve their critical thinking skills and to improve their communications skills."
The measure bars the Tennessee Board of Education and local education officials from prohibiting public school teachers from "helping students understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories."
It also removed the bill's original language that referred to the theories as "controversies."
Three prominent Tennessee scientists who are members of the National Academy of Sciences charged Monday in a letter published in the Tennessean newspaper that state lawmakers are "doing the unbelievable: attempting to roll the clock back to 1925 by attempting to insert religious beliefs in the teaching of science."
That is a reference to a 1925 Tennessee law that banned the teaching of evolution and led to the infamous "Monkey Trial" in Dayton, Tenn., in which teacher John Scopes was tried and convicted for violating the law. The state was widely ridiculed over the matter.
The scientists charged the bill is "misleading, unnecessary, likely to provoke unnecessary and divisive legal proceedings, and likely to have adverse economic consequences for the state."
"Although there are minor differences between the bills, it seems that the only barrier now to their passage and enactment is the veto of Gov. Bill Haslam," the letter continues. "Will he heed the informed opinion of the scientific community and of Tennessee's science teachers? Or are we in for a repeat of the Scopes trial?"
The letter was signed by Dr. Roger D. Cone, chairman of Vanderbilt's department of molecular physiology and biophysics; Dr. Robert G. Webster, at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis; and Dr. Jon Kaas, a Vanderbilt professor of psychology, an associate professor of cell and developmental biology and professor of radiology and radiological science.
Family Action Council of Tennessee President David Fowler, the former Republican senator from Signal Mountain who brought Watson the original bill last year, said he approves of his changes.
"Actually, I think the bill passed by the Senate makes it even more clear that the misrepresentations about the bill are indeed misrepresentations," Fowler said. "That creationism, intelligent design cannot be taught because the material in the bill only includes material allowed by the Department of Education. The other side wants to ignore the facts."
Speaking to reporters last week, Haslam said he talked with Watson, whose point, the governor said, "was should people have the right to talk about why they believe that's true versus other ideas. And he thinks that freedom of discussion about ideas is a good thing."
Asked whether he agreed with that, Haslam said, "I think Thomas Jefferson had a statement one time ... something to the effect that here we're not afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead. And I think that's a pretty good principle for us throughout government and throughout education."
He also said the only questions he has gotten about the bill is from reporters.
According to the Library of Congress, Jefferson's full quote, taken from a letter discussing the University of Virginia, which he founded, says "this institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind."
"For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.