Tennessee's "monkey bill" on hold

Tennessee's Senate Bill 893 — nicknamed, along with its counterpart House Bill 368, the "monkey bill" — is on hold, "almost certainly postponing any action until next year," according to the Knoxville News Sentinel's Humphrey on the Hill blog (April 21, 2011). Its sponsor, Bo Watson (R-District 11), assigned the bill to the general subcommittee of the Senate Education Committee on April 20, 2011, which was the last scheduled meeting of the committee; he told the blog, "Practically speaking, I probably am not going to be able to run the bill this year," although it is still possible that the committee might have a further meeting.

The bill, if enacted, would require state and local educational authorities to "assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies" and permit teachers to "help 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." The only examples provided of "controversial" theories are "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning."

While still regarding SB 893 as "a good bill," Watson told the News Sentinel's blog that he was deferring it because of concerns expressed by faculty at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga — where he received a B.A. in biology — and because of possible proposed amendments: "I want to listen some more," he explained. The Tennessee House of Representatives passed HB 368 on a 70-23 vote on April 7, 2011, after a debate ranging over "the scientific method, 'intellectual bullies,' hair spray, and 'Inherit the Wind,'" as the Chattanooga Times Free Press (April 7, 2011) reported.

A particularly noteworthy moment of the House debate occurred when Frank Niceley (R-District 17) misinvoked the authority of Albert Einstein in support of HB 368, quoting the physicist as saying, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel (April 8, 2011), "A little knowledge would turn your head to atheism, while a broader knowledge would turn your head to Christianity." Beyond the fact that the passage is a paraphrase of a saying of the philosopher Francis Bacon, not a quotation from Einstein, it suggests that Niceley understood the bill to involve the promotion of Christianity, despite the protestations of its sponsors.

Hedy Weinberg, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and a leader in the opposition to the antievolution legislation, testifying before legislative committees and writing op-eds against the bills, was relieved by Watson's decision to place his bill on hold. "It's taken eighty-six years," she told NCSE, "but perhaps at last the Tennessee legislature is learning the lesson of the Scopes trial." She added a note of caution, though: "This is the first step in the right direction, but it isn't the end of the story. Science education in Tennessee won't be truly safe until the legislature adjourns next year."

NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott also hailed the decision, praising the activists in Tennessee. "This couldn't have happened without the hard work of the ACLU of Tennessee, the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and all the teachers, scientists, parents, students, and just plain folks who volunteered their time and effort to defend the teaching of evolution in the Volunteer State." She warned, however, "They'll need to stay sharp, though, to make sure that such legislation can't sneak its way back to the legislative agenda."