Governor Bill Haslam might not like the “teach the controversy” idea becoming part of Tennessee science curriculum, but not enough to veto it. Last week, after he failed to act on a bill, passed by both chambers of the state’s legislature, that would protect teachers who wished to “cover scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories” on evolution, climate change and human cloning, he allowed it to become law without his signature. Thus, Tennessee becomes the second state after Louisiana with a “teach the controversy” law on the books. In Oklahoma, a similar version of the bill has passed the House but hasn’t yet been acted by the state Senate.
All bills contain identical language, saying they “shall not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine.” There’s also identical language about how they’re intended to “help students develop critical thinking skills they need in order to become intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens.” However, the subjects they target are not areas where there are significant scientific controversies; either the bills’ sponsors are poorly informed (and thus shouldn’t be injecting themselves into science education), or they have non-educational goals in mind.
Critics of the legislation contend that this is simply another attempt to insert religion into the public school science classroom, after previous attempts to teach creationism, and later intelligent design, were shot down by federal courts as a violation of the separation of church and state.
After the US Supreme Court’s 1987 decision forbidding the teaching of creationism in science classes, those who objected to the teaching of evolution modified their ideas slightly. They relabeled these ideas “Intelligent Design.” In the wake of that tactic’s defeat in the courts, the opponents of science education retooled again.
Although both bills focus mainly on protecting the teachers, the Oklahoma bill also adds a clause that shields students who voice disagreements with conventional scientific views.
In his “non-signing” statement, Governor Haslam said that he didn’t believe that the bill would have an impact on the scientific standards that govern Tennessee classrooms, nor will greatly alter the curriculum used by science teachers. His reservations with the law was what he called “lack of clarity.”
However, I also don’t believe that it accomplishes anything that isn’t already acceptable in our schools. The bill received strong bipartisan support, passing the House and Senate by a three-to-one margin, but good legislation should bring clarity and not confusion. My concern is that this bill has not met this objective. For that reason, I will not sign the bill but will allow it to become law without my signature.”
Discover Magazine called Haslam’s justifications “a crock,” saying that this is just an end-run around the judiciary’s prohibition on teaching creationism in schools. The Neurologica blog attributed Haslam’s actions less to his sincere belief that the law will not really result in any significant changes, and more to his desire to avoid an embarrassment of having the the bill become law anyway when the legislature overrode his veto. It seems all but inevitable, that whatever happens now, ultimately the fate of this law and similar ones around the country will be decided in court.