With lawmakers recalling Tennessee’s “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925, a state House committee on Tuesday approved legislation that critics say is aimed at opening public school science classes to the teaching of creationism.
“The monkey bill is back before us,” Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, said, warning it could embarrass Tennessee and hurt the state’s economy. “I’m just saying these things can be said and will be said about us. It may have some far-reaching effects that we don’t see at this time.”
The bill by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, cleared the House Education Committee on a voice vote. It requires public schools to “create an environment” in which teachers “respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues,” including evolution and climate change. 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 acknowledge they’re behind the proposal. Molly Miller, a Vanderbilt University geology professor, presented the committee with a letter of opposition to the bill signed by the professors in her school’s department.
Her testimony sparked an angry retort from one lawmaker after she seemed to liken creationism to “zombie theory."
“The doors of science classrooms really do need to remain open to critiquing scientific concepts, as they are now in Tennessee,” Miller told the committee. “But they need to be closed tight to the evaluation of the supernatural, which is not science and that includes religious beliefs as well as a whole host of other things, like zombie theory. Note that by allowing religion into science classrooms, there could be all kinds of other things come along as well. Our students do not need to be spending their time on that when they are in science. They need to be able to learn science to compete.”
Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, quickly grabbed his microphone and denounced “academics coming in here saying anybody who does not agree with them is some kind of idiot. I find it offensive.”
Miller said Tennessee could lose convention business because of the bill, but Rep. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, called that “a pretty big stretch.”
“There may be some other convention to replace those that don’t come here,” he said.
According to the ACLU, anti-evolution measures have failed this year in Kentucky, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Missouri. In Florida, legislation similar to Tennessee’s is advancing. Louisiana adopted a nearly identical bill into law in 2008.
House Democratic leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley said he doesn’t understand the controversy, suggesting that the teaching of evolution and Genesis each has its place in schools and churches. He recalled the 1960 movie about the “Scopes Monkey Trial” in which two famous lawyers — Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan — argued the case for and against a science teacher accused of breaking the Tennessee law against teaching evolution.
“I saw Inherit the Wind when Spencer Tracy held up the Origin of the Species and the Bible and looked at both of them and shoved them into his briefcase," Fitzhugh said. "It’s never been a problem for me. But I don’t think we ought to be creating controversies where they don’t exist. I question the need for this, and I do question what the purpose behind this is.”