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Activists cry foul as Tenn. science education bill hits governor's desk

Erik Schelzig / AP

Rep. Bill Dunn, left, and Rep. Harry Brooks, both Republicans from Knoxville, during a House session in Nashville, Tenn., on Monday. Dunn is the main sponsor of a bill seeking to allow teachers to question evolution.

Activists were waging a last-minute battle Thursday to scuttle a bill that they say would gut science education in Tennessee by allowing public schools to cast doubt on widely-accepted scientific principles, including biological evolution and climate change.

"What it does is bring the political controversy into the classroom, where there is no scientific controversy," said Larisa DeSantis, who teaches in the Department of Earth and Environment at Vanderbilt University. "It’s scary, as a parent and as an educator."

DeSantis spoke to msnbc.com from the office building of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam just before delivering a petition signed by more than 4,000 citizens calling on him to veto HB368. The bill easily passed the state Legislature and now awaits the governor’s signature to become law. Haslam has indicated he would probaby sign the legislation.

The bill says the goal of science education is to help students "develop critical thinking skills." It says the General Assembly has found "the teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy" and says instructors should feel free to explore the "scientific weaknesses" in these theories.

The bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, a self-described conservative and Catholic, has said the bill is about "objective scientific facts."  

Secularists and scientists argue HB368 is an attempt to introduce religious beliefs such as creationism or "intelligent design" as science, thereby undermining broadly accepted scientific principles and hurting students' education.

"As a science teacher I would say there is no controversy over evolution or climate change in the scientific literature," said DeSantis.
"Sure, we argue about the details. But these are core ideas … that are not controversial."

Critics have dubbed the legislation the "Monkey Bill," a reference to the "Scopes Monkey Trial" of 1925 -- a landmark legal case in which the state of Tennessee charged high school science teacher John Scopes of violating a law barring the teaching evolution in public schools. Scopes was a test case for the American Civil Liberties Union, which wanted to challenge the law which had been spearheaded by a Christian fundamentalist in the Tennesee legislature. Scopes was found guilty and the law remained on the books until 1967.

National organizations urged the state and the governor to jettison the bill.

Among the groups that have announced opposition are The National Association of Biology Teachers, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute for Biological Sciences and the Tennessee Science Teachers Association. The bill has also been lambasted by secularists and civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, as a violation of the church-state divide.

"This legislation, which perpetuates the teaching of non-science with a seemingly neutral approach, allows creationists to continue to make unfounded attacks against evolution," states a letter sent Thursday to Haslam from the nonprofit Americans United for Separation of Church and State .

The letter also criticizes two other Tennessee bills that are on the governor’s desk — one that would allow the 10 Commandments to be displayed in public buildings, including schools, and another that would allow teachers to take part in prayer and religious activisties before and after school.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said believes all three bills will face constitutional challenges if they become law. He said he hopes the governor will veto the legislation, if only for practical reasons.

"I think a lot of governors do understand that there are consequences about passing legislation that so clearly violates the constitution,” Lynn said. “It’s up to him now and I hope he balances (that). They shouldn’t be paying for lawsuits when there are plenty of other things to pay for in Tennessee."

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