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TN science bill protects teachers who allow debate over evolution

11:42 AM, Mar 20, 2012   |    comments
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By Chas Sisk | The Tennessean

The Tennessee Senate approved a bill Monday that would encourage teachers and students to debate evolution in the classroom, setting aside complaints that the measure would drag the state back onto the battleground over the teaching of creationism.

Senators voted 24-8 to pass a bill that says schoolteachers cannot be punished for "helping students to understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories" taught in public schools.

The measure has drawn strong opposition from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Center for Science Education and the American Civil Liberties Union, which said it is cover for teachers who want to teach creationism or intelligent design. Supporters said the measure would give teachers more guidance to answer students' questions about science topics.

"The idea behind this bill is that students should be encouraged to challenge current scientific thought and theory," said state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson.

The vote sent the bill back to the state House of Representatives, which passed a similar measure a year ago. Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters earlier Monday that he would discuss the bill with the state Board of Education.

"It is a fair question what the General Assembly's role is," he said. "That's why we have a state board of education."

The issue of evolution had been largely dormant for the last year before moving quickly to the floor of the Senate in the past few days. The measure passed the House in April but did not come up in the Senate until last week, when the Education Committee approved an amended version and sent it to the floor for a full vote.

Watson, the measure's sponsor, said the bill would not interfere with the state's science curriculum -- which includes evolution -- and noted the measure explicitly bars teachers from bringing up their religious views. He said the measure was needed so teachers can answer students' questions, including those that were rooted in their personal beliefs.

"Students often have questions about those theories," Watson said. "Some of those questions come from their own knowledge. Some of those questions come from knowledge that they have gained in their community."

But Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, noted the state's history as a battleground over evolution -- the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 drew national attention and inspired the Oscar-winning film Inherit the Wind -- and said the measure would cast Tennessee in a bad light.

"We're simply dredging up the problems of our past with this bill that will affect our future," he said.

Berke also questioned the appropriateness of teachers' answering questions rooted in religion.

"I'm a person of my faith," he said. "If my children ask, 'How does that mesh with my faith?' I don't want their teacher answering that question."

Heidi Hall contributed to this article. Contact Chas Sisk at 615-259-8283 or csisk@tennessean.com. Follow him on Twitter @chassisk.

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