By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE, Tenn (Reuters) - Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam on Tuesday refused to sign a bill that would permit discussion of creationism in classrooms alongside the traditional evolutionary-based explanation of the origins of life, but allowed it to become law anyway.
The legislation, dubbed the "Monkey Bill" by critics, had sailed through the conservative-leaning state's Republican-dominated legislature.
Haslam, a Republican, earlier had said he would sign the bill despite his misgivings about its impact on the state's science curriculum. After a petition drive against the proposed legislation, he chose to let it become law without his signature.
"I do not believe that this legislation changes the scientific standards that are taught in our schools or the curriculum," Haslam said on Tuesday. "I also don't believe that it accomplishes anything ..."
Haslam could have vetoed the bill. The legislature, however, could override the veto with a simple majority.
Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the state teachers union opposed the bill, which requires teachers to permit a discussion of alternative theories to evolution as well as other issues such as global warming.
Teachers are not allowed to raise the alternative theories but must explore them if mentioned.
Critics said the bill provides a way to bring creationism - the belief that life on Earth was created by God - into science classes and have drawn comparisons with the so-called "Monkey Trial" of 1925 in which a Tennessee teacher was accused of violating state law by teaching that life evolved over time.
"With all the emphasis now on science, math and technology, this seems like a real step backwards," Jerry Winters, director of government relations for the Tennessee Education Association, said in an interview with Reuters.
"Tennessee was the focus of this debate in the 1920s and we don't need to be turning the clock back now," Winters said.
"The Scopes Monkey Trial," held in the east Tennessee city of Dayton, drew national attention as defense attorney Clarence Darrow and prosecutor William Jennings Bryan debated teacher John Scopes' right to teach evolution in violation of state law.
Scopes was found guilty, but the verdict was overturned in the state Supreme Court.
(Reporting By Tim Ghianni; Editing by Mary Wisniewski, Greg McCune and Paul Simao)