Photo by Chris Hondros/Newsmakers.
Paging the ghosts of Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan: Tennessee has a new law on the books that allows teachers to discuss alternatives to mainstream scientific theories in the classroom, including intelligent design.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam allowed the bill—which easily passed the state's House and Senate—to become law on Tuesday by neither signing nor vetoing it, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reports.
The new law bars schools and administrators from prohibiting teachers from "helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught." But, as the effort's critics have been quick to point out, the only examples the legislation gives of "controversial" theories are "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning."
The law does not allow teachers to present the alternative theories on their own, as Reuters notes, but they must discuss them if mentioned. Critics of the law dubbed it the "monkey bill," after the 1925 prosecution in Tennessee of John Scopes, a science teacher who broke state law at the time by teaching evolution.
The law's supporters, including the Knoxville-based Center for Faith and Science International, argue that it promotes critical thinking skills. But opponents, who include the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Tennessee Education Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Association of Biology Teachers, argue that the new rules are essentially allowing teachers to depict evolution and global warming as scientifically controversial subjects, when the actual controversy surrounding them comes from the political and religious spheres, not from scientists.
As Nature notes, the separation of church and state bars school from promoting religion in the classroom, which generally keeps creationism and intelligent design on the sidelines of biology classes. But the Tennessee law represents a victory for a strategy to circumvent that limitation. Groups like the Discovery Institute, who advocate for the teaching of intelligent design, have depicted evolution as a scientifically controversial topic in order to make space for alternative theories in the classroom.
In 2008, Louisiana passed a similar law that provides even more leeway for teachers to bring nonscientific alternative theories into the classroom. As the Christian Science Monitor explains, Louisiana's Science Education Act allows teachers to bring in supplemental materials in addition to science curriculum textbooks while discussing subjects "including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning."