"Monkey bill" returns in Tennessee


Senate Bill 893 — nicknamed, along with its counterpart House Bill 368, "the monkey bill" — is back. In April 2011, its sponsor Bo Watson (R-District 11), assigned the bill to the general subcommittee of the Senate Education Committee, in effect shelving it for the remainder of the year. But on March 7, 2012, it was revived and placed on the committee's calendar; on March 14, 2012, the committee voted 7-1 (with one member abstaining) to pass an amended version of the bill, although the exact wording of the amended version is not yet listed on the legislature's website. The bill now proceeds to the Senate Select Committee on Calendar for scheduling for a floor vote.

Judging from a draft version of the amended version of SB 893 obtained by NCSE, the amendments were minimal. Where the original version claimed that the teaching of scientific topics ("including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning") "can cause controversy," the amended version claims that it "may cause debate and disputation." The amended version also specifies that it is addressing scientific topics "required to be taught under the curriculum framework developed by the state board of education," while the original version addressed all scientific topics discussed in Tennessee's public schools.

If the Senate were to approve SB 893 as amended in the Senate Education Committee, the two houses of the legislature would have to resolve the discrepancies between it and HB 368, which passed the Tennessee House of Representatives on a 70-23 vote on April 7, 2011, after a debate ranging over "the scientific method, 'intellectual bullies,' hair spray, and 'Inherit the Wind,'" as the Chattanooga Times Free Press (April 7, 2011) reported. One representative justified his support for the bill by saying, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel (April 8, 2011), "A little knowledge would turn your head to atheism, while a broader knowledge would turn your head to Christianity."

Opposition to the monkey bills was unflaggingly expressed by the Knoxville News Sentinel (April 18, 2011), the Nashville Tennessean, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (PDF), the Tennessee Science Teachers Association (PDF), and the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, whose executive director Hedy Weinberg argued in a column for the Tennessean (March 11, 2011), "this legislation is not aimed at developing students' critical thinking skills. Rather, it seeks to subvert scientific principle to religious ideology by granting legal cover to teachers who wish to dress up religious beliefs regarding the origin of life as pseudo-science."