Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Haslam returned the bill to the legislature Tuesday (April 10) without vetoing it or signing it, signaling that he's not fully pleased with it but also acknowledging that his veto could be overridden. The bill passed the House, 72-23 and the Senate, 25-8.
"The bill received strong bipartisan support, passing the House and Senate by a 3-to-1 margin," Haslam was quoted as saying in The Tennessean, "but good legislation should bring clarity and not confusion. My concern is that this bill has not met this objective."
Supporters called it an academic freedom bill. At least 10 states now have similar laws, according to the Discovery Institute, which supports the laws.
The new law says legislators believe teachers may be "unsure" what they are allowed to say on some issues, and it listed four examples, although it said the list isn't exhaustive: "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning."
The law further says that an important purpose of scientific education is "to help students develop critical thinking skills." To that end, the law says, state officials cannot prohibit teachers "from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories."
Significantly, the new law says it "only protects the teaching of scientific information" and "shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine."
Rob Boston, a senior policy analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the law will offer legal protections to teachers who "teach creationist concepts."
"A school district somewhere in the state is going to implement these reckless policies and get sued," Boston wrote on the organization's website. "The courts have been clear on this. Public schools cannot teach creationism, which is a religious concept favored by some fundamentalist Christians, in science class."
But John West, associate director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, said the law is needed.
"More than 85 years ago, Tennessee teacher John Scopes appealed for the right to teach students all of the scientific evidence," West said. "This historic bill now secures that right. It's ironic that many of today's defenders of evolution have abandoned Scopes' plea for free discussion and are pushing for censorship and intolerance in the classroom instead."
Casey Luskin an attorney with the Discovery Institute's Center for Science & Culture, said many teachers around the country are "harassed, intimidated, and sometimes fired" for presenting evidence critical of evolution, even if they prevent evidence for it. The law, Luskin said, will protect such teachers.
Compiled by Michael Foust, associate editor of Baptist Press.
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