NASHVILLE — The Senate approved a bill Monday evening that deals with teaching of evolution and other scientific theories while the House approved legislation authorizing cities and counties to display the Ten Commandments in public buildings.
The Senate voted 24-8 for HB368, which sponsor Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, says will provide guidelines for teachers answering students' questions about evolution, global warming and other scientific subjects. Critics call it a "monkey bill" that promotes creationism in classrooms.
The bill was approved in the House last year but now must return to that body for concurrence on a Senate amendment that made generally minor changes. One says the law applies to scientific theories that are the subject of "debate and disputation" — a phrase replacing the word "controversial" in the House version.
The measure also guarantees that teachers will not be subject to discipline for engaging students in discussion of questions they raise, though Watson said the idea is to provide guidelines so that teachers will bring the discussion back to the subjects authorized for teaching in the curriculum approved by the state Board of Education.
All eight no votes came from Democrats, some of whom raised questions about the bill during brief debate.
Sen. Tim Barnes, D-Clarksville, said he was concerned that the measure was put forward "not for scientific reasons but for political reasons." And Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said teachers were doing just fine teaching science without the Legislature's involvement.
"We are simply dredging up the problems of the past with this bill and that will affect our teachers in the future," Berke said.
Watson said the purpose of the legislation is to encourage teachers in helping their students learn to challenge and debate ideas to "improve their thinking skills."
Critics of the HB368 labeling the measure "monkey bill" ranged from the American Civil Liberties Union to the National Center for Science Education. In a statement sent to legislators, the eight Tennesseans who are members of the National Academy of Science said that, in practice, the bill will likely lead to "scientifically unwarranted criticisms of evolution."
"By undermining the teaching of evolution in Tennessee's public schools, HB368 and SB893 would miseducate students, harm the state's national reputation, and weaken its efforts to compete in a science-driven global economy," said the statement signed by Stanley Cohen, who won the Nobel Prize in physiology of medicine in 1986, and seven other scientists.
The bill authorizing display of the Ten Commandments in public buildings — HB2658 — is sponsored by Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, who said it is in line with court rulings. In essence, courts have often declared displays of the biblical commandments unconstitutional standing along, but permissible as part of a display of "historic documents."
The bill authorizes all local governments to display "historic documents" and specifically lists the commandments as being included.
Hill said the bill will prevent city and county governments from "being intimidated any further by special interest groups" opposed to displaying of the Ten Commandments. It passed 93-9 and now goes to the Senate.
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