A lot has changed in the 87 years since the Scopes Monkey Trial, the landmark case that drew national attention to the creation-evolution controversy. In that trial, a Tennessee jury found schoolteacher John Scopes guilty of teaching evolution in a state-funded school. Teaching evolution is perfectly acceptable practice today, but lawmakers in Tennessee are again wading into the debate between science and religion.
On Tuesday, Tennessee governor Bill Haslam said that he would allow a bill protecting teachers who criticize evolution to become law. The bill, which seeks to "[help] students to understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories" passed in the state Senate in March. Haslam announced that he will let it take effect on April 20 without his signature.
The bill is sponsored by Republican state Sen. Bo Watson. He argues that the legislation is not intended to upend the state's science curriculum, but rather it seeks to inform and encourage a debate about the merits of current scientific thought and theory. He also notes that the bill specifically prohibits teachers from commenting on their own religious beliefs.
Groups like the ACLU see the bill as an attempt to provide cover for teachers who wish to call evolution into question. Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, told the AP that terms such as "strengths and weaknesses" and even "critical thinking" are used subversively to inject non-scientific theories like creationism into the classroom.
Some worry that the new bill will bring unwanted attention back to Tennessee, as it did with Scopes's trial back in 1925. Tennessee state Sen. Andy Berke, an opponent of the bill, explained, "We're simply dredging up the problems of our past with this bill that will affect our future."