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Tenn. Lawmakers OK Controversial Bill on Teaching Evolution

A Tennessee bill awaiting final sign-off, or a veto, from Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has sparked sharp criticism from leading scientists and science organizations, who argue that it would undermine the teaching of evolution and other scientific topics in public schools.

The bill, approved by lopsided votes in the Republican-controlled House and Senate, would protect teachers who discuss with students the "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses" of existing theories, such as evolution and global warming.

Proponents say the legislation is aimed at fostering "critical thinking" in the classroom.

A Senate amendment clarifies that the scientific discussions must occur "within the framework of the curriculum" established by the state board of education, notes a story in the Knoxville News Sentinel. In addition, the amendment deletes a reference to the scientific theories as subject to "controversy" and instead uses the words "debate and disputation."

But those changes did not appease scientific critics.

Three prominent scientists from Tennessee, all members of the National Academy of Sciences, wrote a letter published Monday in the Tennessean newspaper that derides the legislation. Harkening back to the Scopes trial of 1925, they say, "the Tennessee legislature is doing the unbelievable: attempting to roll the clock back to 1925 by attempting to insert religious beliefs in the teaching of science."

They call the legislation "misleading, unnecessary, likely to provoke unnecessary and divisive legal proceedings."

The Tennessean's editorial board also weighed in against the bill, which it argues "is about wedging open a door to include a radically divisive, ultra-conservative Christian agenda disguised in politically correct language."

In addition, the bill has been criticized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, and the National Association of Biology Teachers, among others.

Sen. Bo Watson, the bill's Senate sponsor, said the measure's intent is that "students should be encouraged to challenge current scientific thought and theory," according to a story in the Chattanooga Times Free Press newspaper. "Students should be encouraged to debate, to improve their critical-thinking skills, and to improve their communications skills."

Although Haslam has apparently not yet signaled whether he will sign the measure, the Knoxville News Sentinel story says that he has yet to veto a single bill that has landed on his desk.

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