Tennessee Senate passes Bo Watson's bill on evolution debate

photo Tennessee senator Bo Watson
Arkansas-Tennessee Live Blog

NASHVILLE -- State senators on Monday approved a bill they say protects teachers when discussing the "strengths and scientific weaknesses" of scientific theories such as evolution and climate change.

But several lawmakers and scientists said they still have concerns it could be used to introduce religious teachings into public school science classes.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, passed on a 24-8 vote.

Because of a Watson amendment that seeks to calm a storm of controversy over the bill in scientific circles, the bill now goes back to the House, which passed a different version of the measure last year.

It requires discussions between teachers and students to take place within the "framework" of the State Board of Education and local school systems' science curriculum, Watson said.

The bill's thrust, he said, 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."

Critics speak out

Watson said he believes he has addressed concerns that caused a group of prominent Tennessee-based scientists, including Nobel laureate Stanley Cohen, to criticize the legislation.

"Let me say what this bill does not do ... as may have been mischaracterized by many," Watson said. "This bill does not endorse, promote or allow the teaching of any nonscientific, nonconventional theories in the scientific classroom."

Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, complimented Watson for his efforts but said he still has concerns about the bill.

"I know [Watson] has the best intentions with this bill," Berke said. "I do, however, believe there are others who are using this bill for other purposes to make their own points about the origins of life."

He said he continues to "believe it is a mistake" for lawmakers to pass the bill. "We are simply dredging up the problems of our past with this bill."

"Monkey bill"

The legislation has been derided by scientists and others as a modern-day "monkey bill," That is a reference to the 1925 Dayton, Tenn., "Monkey Trial" in which high school science teacher, John Scopes, was tried for violating a state law that made it unlawful to teach evolution in public schools.

Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, said teachers have outlined concerns to him about questions they get from students on evolution, saying, "Wait a minute, this doesn't mesh with what I learned in Sunday school." He said teachers "aren't sure how to respond."

Watson said one thing the bill does is ask the State Board of Education and local school administrators to "find effective ways to present the curriculum" under state standards.

Berke said "I believe deeply in my faith," but he doesn't want teachers answering those types of questions. They should direct the students to their parents or "appropriate people within my faith."

Watson replied that provisions of the proposed law say it "shall not be constructed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine."

The issue, he argued, "is to help teachers as well as students, but really to help teachers to frame the dialogue within the construct of the curriculum established by the State Board of Education."

The bill has scientists in an uproar. Last week, all eight Tennessee members of the National Academy of Sciences -- including Cohen -- signed a statement opposing the original bill.

"As scientists whose research involves and is based upon evolution, we affirm -- along with the nation's leading scientific organizations -- that evolution is a central, unifying, and accepted area of science," their statement said. "The evidence for evolution is overwhelming; there is no scientific evidence for its supposed rivals ['creation science' and 'intelligent design'' and there is no scientific evidence against it," the statement says.

The scientists said by "undermining the teaching of evolution in Tennessee's public schools, HB 368 and SB 893 would miseducate students, harm the state's national reputation, and weaken its efforts to compete in a science-driven global economy."

Watson later unveiled his amendment.

But Josh Rosenau with the National Center for Science Education said "it's really hard to get too excited about the change" in Watson's bill.

Among other things, it changes the word "controversies" about scientific theories to "disputation."

"The structure of the bill is just flawed," Rosenau said. "It singles out science education for different treatment than other subjects" and treats science's treatment of evolution and climate change "as somewhat sketchy, which is not true."

Ten Commandments

Also on Monday night, the House voted 93-0 to let public buildings display "historically significant documents" like the Ten Commandments, the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence.

The measure allows the documents to be displayed in the form of statues, monuments, tablets or other ways that the bill says "respects the dignity and solemnity of such documents."

The Senate version of the bill is up in committee today.

Crime bills

Also, The Associated Press reported two key pieces of legislation in Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's anti-crime package have passed the Senate.

A proposal that would increase penalties for violent crimes committed by groups of three or more people was approved 30-0 on Monday evening.

A measure that would enhance penalties for gun possession by people with previous felony convictions was approved 29-0.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at 615-255-0550 or asher@timesfreepress.com.

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