Gov. Haslam to pick a side on evolution bill today

photo Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam
Arkansas-Tennessee Live Blog

NASHVILLE -- Although the views of 3,200 Tennesseans urging him to veto a controversial bill on the teaching of evolution are important, Gov. Bill Haslam said, so is the fact that an overwhelming number of lawmakers voted to pass the measure.

"Sure, one of the things we do is we weigh input of all kinds," Haslam said Monday after a 3,200-signature petition opposed to the recently passed measure was delivered last week to his office.

But "it's also worthy of note it didn't just barely pass the House and the Senate. It passed 3 to 1," he said. "You take that into account, as well.

"But if I felt like a bill was bad for Tennessee, I just wouldn't sign it, regardless of how it was supported."

The Republican governor, who last week said "probably so" when asked if he would sign the measure, has until today to decide whether he will sign, veto or allow the measure to become law without his signature.

The measure, derided as the "monkey bill" by critics, including scientists and national science teachers' groups, was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson. Watson's bill protects public school teachers who describe so-called "weaknesses" in evolution, climate change and other theories.

In a letter to Haslam that accompanied the petition, Vanderbilt University professor Larisa Grawe Desantis, who researches and teaches about both evolution and climate change, pointed to what she said is Tennessee's growing reputation in science education.

"But this bill points in exactly the opposite direction," she wrote.

It also will prove confusing to students, Desantis warned, noting the bill's "central premise" that scientific concepts such as evolution and climate change are "controversial" is a "disturbing and inaccurate notion."

"Evolution forms the bedrock of modern biology," she said. "There are no legitimate scientists who question its core conclusions.

"If this bill is signed into law, students in schools throughout Tennessee will receive a very different message, and will suffer the consequences," she wrote. "Scientific literacy is an increasingly important factor for college acceptance and job prospects."

Other critics charge the bill would encourage discussion of alternative faith-based accounts of the origins of life such as creationism and "intelligent design" that have no business in science classrooms.

Watson, who received his bachelor's degree in biology, has said he rewrote portions of the original bill and removed language such as "scientific controversies" used to describe evolution, the origins of life and global warming.

The bill, Watson said, also requires discussions to take place within the "framework" of the state's science curriculum.

The amended legislation passed the Senate on a 25-8 vote and the House on a 72-23 vote. It takes 17 votes in the 33-member Senate and 50 in the 99-member House to pass a bill.

The name "monkey bill" is a reference to a 1920s Tennessee law attacking evolution and outlawing its teaching in public schools. It led to the infamous 1925 "monkey trial" in Dayton, Tenn., in which teacher John Scopes was tried and convicted for teaching evolution. He was fined $100. The conviction later was overturned on a technicality.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, on Monday dismissed concerns about the bill.

"You know, that bill is so watered down it didn't mean anything by the time it passed other than to give some instructions to teachers what to teach and what not to teach," he said. "I don't see that'll be a problem."

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550.