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Bill Allowing Teachers to Challenge Evolution Passes Tennessee House

In a 70-28 vote today, the Tennessee House of Representatives passed HB 368, a bill that encourages science teachers to explore controversial topics without fear of reprisal. Critics say the measure will enable K-12 teachers to present intelligent design and creationism as acceptable alternatives to evolution in the classroom.

The bill's text, if passed into state law, would protect teachers from discipline if they "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," namely, "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning." The bill also says that its "shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine."

In a letter to the House education subcommittee, Alan I. Leshner, the chief executive officer of AAAS (which publishes ScienceInsider), said, "There is virtually no scientific controversy among the overwhelming majority of researchers on the core facts of global warming and evolution. 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."

In addition to AAAS, the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, and the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) have expressed their opposition to the bill.

"There has been a widespread pattern of discrimination against educators who would challenge evolution in the classroom," Casey Luskin, a policy analyst for the pro-intelligent design Discovery Institute, in Seattle, Washington, told ScienceInsider. "Schools censor from students the evidence against evolution. This protects the rights of teachers to teach in an objective way." The Discovery Institute supports the bill and others like it in other states.

"We think it's very unfortunate that the House has chosen to push this forward," Steven Newton, policy director at NCSE, told ScienceInsider. "It would be especially unfortunate if this took the next step and became law, as it might give momentum to antievolution forces and forces that seek to deny the reality of climate change."

If the bill passes, Tennessee would join Louisiana as the second state to have specific "protection" for the teaching of evolution in the classroom. The effects of the Louisiana law, which passed in 2008, are still unclear. "Some teachers there are teaching creationism, were before, and now will be even more encouraged to bring out antievolution rhetoric," says Newton.

An identical Tennessee Senate bill, SB 893, is up for a vote by the Senate Education Committee at the end of the month. If it follows the party line vote seen in the House, Newton expects it to pass and Republican Governor Bill Haslam to sign it into law.