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Bill lets teachers challenge science; Tennessee law revives memories of Scopes trial

Tennessee is poised to adopt a law that would allow public school teachers to challenge climate change and evolution in their classrooms without fear of sanction, according to educators and civil libertarians in the state.

Passed by the state Legislature and awaiting Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's signature, the measure is likely to stoke growing concerns among science teachers around the country that teaching climate science is becoming the same kind of classroom and community flash point as evolution. If it becomes law, Tennessee will become the second state, after Louisiana, to allow the teaching of alternatives to accepted science on climate change.

The Tennessee measure does not require the teaching of alternatives to scientific theories of evolution, climate change, human cloning and "the chemical origins of life." Instead, the legislation would prevent school administrators from reining in teachers who expound on alternative hypotheses.

The measure's primary sponsor, Republican state Sen. Bo Watson, said it was meant to give teachers the clarity and security to discuss alternative ideas to evolution and climate change that students may have picked up at home and want to explore in class.

"There appear to be questions from teachers like, 'What can we discuss and not discuss that won't get us in trouble as far as nonconventional, nonscientific ideas, things that students may see videos about on YouTube?' " Watson said. "It doesn't allow for religious or nonreligious ideology to be introduced."

The bill's critics, which include the Tennessee Science Teachers Association and the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, counter that teachers currently have no problem addressing unconventional ideas and challenges students bring up. They argue, instead, that the measure gives legal cover to teachers to introduce pseudo-scientific ideas to students, and they have asked the governor to veto it.

"Our fear is that there are communities across this state where schools are very small and one teacher is the science department, and they also happen to teach a Sunday school class, and this gives them permission to bring that into the classroom," said Becky Ashe, president of the state science teachers association.

"It's a floodgate."

Tennessee was the site of the 1925 "Scopes monkey trial," during which a high school science teacher was tried for violating a state law banning the teaching of evolution. Critics of the new law have called it a "monkey bill," asserting that it is a throwback to that earlier era of science denial. Critics' concerns have been heightened because the education bill originated with the Family Action Council of Tennessee, or FACT, a conservative Christian group based in Franklin.

On its website, the council says the bill is needed because "in many classrooms, Darwinian evolution is currently taught in a completely one-sided manner, with most students never learning anything about growing scientific controversies about the theory."