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Background on Tennessee's 21st Century Monkey Law
In 2012, Tennessee’s legislature enacted a 21st century "Monkey Law," a law opening the state’s science classrooms to lessons in creationism, climate change denial, and other nonscience. Declaring that "some scientific subjects required to be taught … may cause debate and disputation including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning," the law states that no administrator may "prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories." Such language is a common feature of creationist bills.
The law was opposed by a broad coalition, including state and national science organizations, science teachers societies, and civil liberties groups. The nation's leading earth science education organizations weighed in against the bills. So did the American Institute of Biological Sciences, which speaks for the nation's biologists. Every Tennesseean member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences – including the state's only winner of a Nobel Prize in science – opposed the bill and its harmful effects. The Tennessee Science Teachers Association consistently opposed the law, as did the nation's leading earth science education organizations and the National Association of Biology Teachers.
Citizens of Tennessee petitioned the legislature to reject the law, and asked the governor to veto it. Many NCSE members sent letters like this:
HB 368 and SB 893 are unnecessary at best, and likely to have harmful consequences in classrooms across the state, and undercut our economic viability.
When pressed about his views on the bill, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam replied that "the only questions he has gotten about the bill are from reporters." NCSE members responded with a slew of questions, including:
Concerned parents delivered a petition opposing the law to the governor. Several thousand people agreed with Larisa DeSantis, a biologist and mother from Nashville, TN, who wrote in the petition:
As parents, educators, and concerned citizens, we call on you to veto HB 368, which encourages teachers to present scientific topics such as evolution and global warming as "controversial." This bill is deeply misleading and will only serve to confuse students about well-established scientific concepts. Our children need the best education possible in order to excel in college, compete in a 21st-century job market, and cope with the future challenges of climate change. Governor Haslam, we strongly urge you to support sound science and veto HB 368.
Haslam ultimately refused to sign the bill (but allowed it to become law nonetheless), declaring: "I do not believe that this legislation changes the scientific standards that are taught in our schools or the curriculum that is used by our teachers. However, I also don't believe that it accomplishes anything that isn't already acceptable in our schools. The bill received strong bipartisan support … 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."
DeSantis responded: "While I am heartened that the Governor refused to sign this misleading and unnecessary legislation, I am deeply disappointed that he ignored over 5,000 Tennesseans who called on him to use his veto power to reject it entirely. Even more so, I am worried about how this law will affect the students of Tennessee, including my daughter. We all want our children to be critical thinkers, but teaching that evolution and climate change are scientific "controversies" will only lead to confusion, as the Governor himself has acknowledged."
The law’s effects will vary from classroom to classroom across the state’s hundreds of school districts. Where teachers, administrators, and local school boards stand firmly in support of science, the law’s effects are likely to be minimal. But in some districts, parents may try to force nonscience into science classes, or teachers may try to go beyond the curriculum, and use the law as shelter. NCSE and a network of Tennesseeans are monitoring the schools and working with teachers and school board members to protect science classrooms from religious lessons and other nonscience masquerading as science.