At the top of the agenda for Tennessee’s new Republican majority is proving that the party is capable of governing responsibly. But roughly midway through their first legislative session in power, GOP leaders are being forced to answer critics who say they’re wasting time on pointless arguments and politically extreme causes.
Whether it’s trying to nullify federal health care reform or criminalizing some practices of Islam, Republicans are drawing outrage from the news media and mockery from the social network.
In a frequently bizarre debate recalling Tennessee’s own Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, a bill brought by creationists has dominated the time of the House education subcommittee. The argument has touched on topics including the number of chromosomes in chimpanzees, the Big Bang Theory and the odds that Elvis is alive.
Also among the measures drawing scorn:
Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, is calling for Tennessee to study establishing a monetary system of its own to be ready “in the event of hyperinflation, depression, or other economic calamity related to the breakdown of the Federal Reserve System, for which the state is not prepared …”
Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, thinks it’s a good idea to set up a committee of legislators to pick and choose which federal laws are constitutional and presumably therefore OK to follow.
In a bill spawned by the Obama “birther” conspiracy theory, Senate Judiciary Committee chair Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, wants to force candidates on Tennessee’s ballot to prove U.S. citizenship by producing their birth certificates.
“Such distractions should anger Tennesseans who look to elected representatives for leadership, fresh ideas, responsible behavior and efforts to help responsibly guide the state, promote economic development and create a better-educated workforce,” The Jackson Sun wrote in a stinging editorial listing many of the legislature’s more unusual proposals.
Ketron, also sponsor of the bill against Shariah law, has been singled out for special abuse on Twitter from wisecracking state political observers.
“Sen. Ketron to propose legislation stating that Tennessee courts must apply Miller Lite’s ‘Man Law’ to all disputes,” the liberal blogger Ilissa Gold wrote in a representative tweet.
Ketron maintains his bill would give the state the authority to go after Muslim terrorists. But even his hometown newspaper, the Daily News Journal, ridicules that claim. The state doesn’t need or want that power, the newspaper said in an editorial, adding that the legislation is worded so broadly that it could cause problems for “anyone who practices a core set of principles such as praying toward Mecca five times a day, abstaining from alcohol, fasting during Ramadan or following Shariah rules for finance.”
In its own editorial, the Knoxville News Sentinel said Ketron’s proposal “would basically outlaw Islam” and called it “obviously unconstitutional and an embarrassment to the entire state.”
Critics say many of these around-the-bend bills are coming from far-right organizations and are put forth by grandstanding lawmakers without much thought. Beavers’ “birther” proposal seems to be one such bill. It requires candidates to produce a “long-form birth certificate.” During an appearance on the Internet’s Reality Check Radio, Beavers conceded she didn’t even know what that was.
“Now, you’re asking me to get into a lot of things that I haven’t really looked into yet,” the senator told the show’s host when he asked about that.
As for President Obama, Beavers said: “I have no personal knowledge about whether or not he was eligible [to run for president] or not, but there have been a lot of questions about it, and I think it just begs the question, you know, who’s really checking on this?”
A bill by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, requires public schools to “create an environment” in which teachers “respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues,” including evolution. It also orders administrators to “assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies.”
Dunn insists he aims only to promote “critical thinking” in schools about the origins of life. But opponents say the bill is clearly intended to open the door to teaching intelligent design in public schools, and creationists admit they support the proposal. David Fowler, of the Rev. James Dobson’s Family Action Council, touted the bill in an opinion piece in the online publication, The Chattanoogan.
“Certainly intelligent design theory is not without its critics, and if the subject is going to be taught, then discussion of those criticisms is appropriate,” Fowler wrote. “But it is also appropriate that students understand that intelligent design is a theory that many scientists are beginning to consider and hold because of the weaknesses in the scientific evidence supporting evolution.”
Wesley Roberts, a Hume-Fogg High School science teacher, testified against the bill during one day’s hearings. He said it invites “ghost stories” into the classroom.
“I cannot imagine a student demanding by legislative authority that we include faith healing in a discussion of vaccinations,” he said. “It takes us backward. Science is not a democratic process in which anyone’s opinion, no matter how non-scientifically based, counts. It’s a process that deals only with reason, logic and proof.”
Dunn, whose bill still is pending in the House subcommittee, dismisses such concerns. He said he was acting in part because a child came to him and questioned why humans and chimpanzees don’t have the same number of chromosomes if they come from common ancestors.
Dunn insisted his bill wouldn’t lead to the teaching of intelligent design but would foster a more wide-ranging and open discussion of how life began. Louisiana enacted the same proposal in 2008, and there have been no reports of the teaching of creationism there, he said.
“There are things that are possible, and maybe that’s what’s alarming you,” he told his critics during one subcommittee meeting. “There are things that are probable. It is possible that Elvis Presley is alive. It’s not very probable.”
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey blames criticism of the legislature on the news media, which he says focuses on the weird and controversial.
“You all ask me about things I haven’t even heard of until you all walk into this room, and that’s what you all report on,” Ramsey told reporters during his weekly availability.
Ramsey defended lawmakers’ right to sponsor whatever bills they see fit and insisted Republican leaders are concentrating on improving the economy.
“Every senator has that right, and I’ll defend that to my dying day. … It’s only a distraction if the press focuses on it. And I mean that. It has not distracted me for one minute, not one minute. I’m focused like a laser beam on job creation and education. That has not distracted me for one second. Never thought about it until y’all walked in this room this morning. So how could it be a distraction if I haven’t even thought about it?”