Background on Tennessee's 21st Century Monkey Law

In 2012, Tennessee’s legislature enacted a 21st century "Monkey Law," a law opening the state’s science classrooms to lessons in creationism, climate change denial, and other nonscience. Declaring that "some scientific subjects required to be taught … may cause debate and disputation including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning," Declaring that "some scientific subjects required to be taught … may cause debate and disputation including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning," the law states that no administrator may "prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories." Such language is a common feature of creationist bills.

The law was opposed by a broad coalition, including state and national science organizations, science teachers societies, and civil liberties groups. The nation's leading earth science education organizations weighed in against the billsSo did the American Institute of Biological Sciences, which speaks for the nation's biologists. Every Tennesseean member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences – including the state's only winner of a Nobel Prize in science – opposed the bill and its harmful effects. The Tennessee Science Teachers Association consistently opposed the law, as did the nation's leading earth science education organizations and the National Association of Biology Teachers.

Citizens of Tennessee petitioned the legislature to reject the law and asked the governor to veto it. Many NCSE members sent letters like this:

HB 368 and SB 893 are unnecessary at best, and likely to have harmful consequences in classrooms across the state, and undercut our economic viability.

Taken at face value, the bill simply encourages science teachers to help students understand science. But they already do that, just as math teachers help students understand math, so there's no point passing a law singling out science classes. The bill would also make it harder for locally elected school boards, and the principals and superintendents who know the teachers best, to step in and correct problems in a classroom.

Regardless of what its sponsors intended, the law's plain language prohibits any supervisor from interfering with how a teacher teaches. It would open the door for bad science, non-science, and other inappropriate lessons to be introduced into classrooms.  And those practices could be defended by claiming such lessons are meant to advance the bill's praiseworthy goals.

Tennessee's science teachers don't need this bill and they don't want it.

When pressed about his views on the bill, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam replied that "the only questions he has gotten about the bill are from reporters." NCSE members responded with a slew of questions, including:

  • Why does this bill change the rules for science classes and only science classes?  
  • Why are scientifically uncontroversial topics like evolution and climate change singled out?  
  • What problem is this bill supposed to solve?  
  • What would the bill really do to science education in Tennessee? 
  • How will this affect Tennessee's ability to attract and create 21st-century jobs in biotechnology, clean energy, and medical research?  
  • How much power will this take away from our locally-elected school boards and our principals?  

Concerned parents delivered a petition opposing the law to the governor. Several thousand people agreed with Larisa DeSantis, a biologist and mother from Nashville, TN, who wrote in the petition:

As parents, educators, and concerned citizens, we call on you to veto HB 368, which encourages teachers to present scientific topics such as evolution and global warming as "controversial." This bill is deeply misleading and will only serve to confuse students about well-established scientific concepts. Our children need the best education possible in order to excel in college, compete in a 21st-century job market, and cope with the future challenges of climate change. Governor Haslam, we strongly urge you to support sound science and veto HB 368.

Tennessee is on the verge of turning the clock of science education back to 1925, the days of the Scopes Monkey Trial, and Governor Bill Haslam is the only one who can stop it.

Last week, the Tennessee State Legislature passed legislation (HB 368/SB 893), which allows classroom teachers to position well-established scientific topics such as evolution and global warming as "controversial." The bill is the brainchild of Senator Bo Watson, who claims that the bill will help improve student's critical thinking skills. But leading scholars and science education groups strongly disagree, and have widely condemned the bill.

If this bill becomes law, the students of Tennessee will suffer its consequences. As the American Association for the Advancement of Science explains, "Asserting that there are significant scientific controversies about the overall nature of these concepts when there are none will only confuse students, not enlighten them." Students confused about well-established scientific facts will have a harder time getting into college, more difficulty getting the high-tech jobs of the 21st century, and will be unprepared to deal with the very real impacts of climate change that are their inheritance. This bill will also damage the state's reputation as a leader in science education, and could harm science and technology jobs in Tennessee.

Governor Haslam has the ability to stop all of this from happening, which is why we strongly urge him to veto the bill today!

Haslam ultimately refused to sign the bill (but allowed it to become law nonetheless), declaring: "I do not believe that this legislation changes the scientific standards that are taught in our schools or the curriculum that is used by our teachers. However, I also don't believe that it accomplishes anything that isn't already acceptable in our schools. The bill received strong bipartisan support … but good legislation should bring clarity and not confusion. My concern is that this bill has not met this objective. For that reason, I will not sign the bill but will allow it to become law without my signature."

DeSantis responded: "While I am heartened that the Governor refused to sign this misleading and unnecessary legislation, I am deeply disappointed that he ignored over 5,000 Tennesseans who called on him to use his veto power to reject it entirely. Even more so, I am worried about how this law will affect the students of Tennessee, including my daughter. We all want our children to be critical thinkers, but teaching that evolution and climate change are scientific "controversies" will only lead to confusion, as the Governor himself has acknowledged."

The law’s effects will vary from classroom to classroom across the state’s hundreds of school districts. Where teachers, administrators, and local school boards stand firmly in support of science, the law’s effects are likely to be minimal. But in some districts, parents may try to force nonscience into science classes, or teachers may try to go beyond the curriculum, and use the law as shelter. NCSE and a network of Tennesseeans are monitoring the schools and working with teachers and school board members to protect science classrooms from religious lessons and other nonscience masquerading as science.