(Note: Updates and replaces earlier post)
By a 70-23 vote, the House approved and sent to the Senate Thursday a bill that protects teachers from discipline if they discuss alternatives to prevailing scientific theories, notably including evolution.
Sponsor Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, said the purpose is to promote “critical thinking” in science classes. Critics contend the measure (HB368) is a backdoor means of teaching creationism reminiscent of the 1920s Tennessee law that prohibited teaching of evolution, leading to the trial and conviction of a Dayton teacher and inspiring the movie Inherit the Wind.
House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh had referred to the measure as “the monkey bill” earlier. Dunn said after passage that critics were practicing “monkey see, monkey do” by believing and repeating unwarranted characterizations of the measure as an attack on evolution and promotion of religion in the classroom.
The bill provoked extensive debate on the House floor, with Republicans at times bringing up religion and the shortcomings of scientific predictions. They also described critics of the measure as “intellectual bullies” sending”vicious emails.”
Dunn said that when he attended high school scientists believe a new Ice Age was inevitable – while now most believe in global warming. Rep. Shelia Butt, R-Columbia, recalled that as a high school student “we gave up Aqua Net hairspray… because it was causing global warming.”
“Since then scientists have said that maybe we shouldn’t have given up that aerosol can because that aerosol was actually absorbing the earth’s rays and was keeping us from global warming,” Butt said.
The debate at times did get into religion, though Dunn noted the bill itself includes a sentence declaring the proposed new law shall not be used to promote religion.
Rep. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, quoted Albert Einstein as saying: “A little knowledge would turn your head to atheism, while a broader knowledge would you’re your head to Christianity.”
“Our whole state will be better if we have children using critical thinking about how we got here and not just accepting a theory that has never been proven,” said Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby.
Democrats questioned the measure at length. Rep. Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, suggested the bill is telling teachers what to teach in science and questioned whether math, physical education and history would be next.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville also asked whether the bill could allow teachers to promote creation theories promoted by non-Christian religions.