Tennessee Evolution In Schools Debate Nears Closure

A look at a year's worth of evolution debate in Tennessee.


  1. UPDATE: 4:34 p.m. April 10, 2012



    Governor: Legislation to become law without my signature


    NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today issued the following statement on HB 368/SB 893:


    “I have reviewed the final language of HB 368/SB 893 and assessed the legislation’s impact.  I have also evaluated the concerns that have been raised by the bill.  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, passing the House and Senate by a three-to-one margin, 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.”


  2. Tennessee's governor Bill Haslam's reached the deadline today (see update above) to sign, veto or pocket-veto controversial legislation that would allow teachers to present alternative theories to topics like evolution and global warming in Tennessee science classes. When Tennessee reporters asked Haslam in early April if he would sign the bill, he answered, "probably so."  

  3. With the fate of the bill lying squarely with the Governor, veto requests have flowed in from the  American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and several scientists:
  4. There was also a petition from Nashville-area residents. 
  5. But in 2005, when the issue of "evolution vs. creationism" surfaced in Kansas schools, a Gallup poll found the majority of Americans would not be upset if public schools taught the theory of creationism.
  6. Another Gallup poll five years later found that four in ten Americans still believe in "strict creationism," while almost as many believe God had a hand in evolution.
  7. Tennessee's bill started in the state House in 2011.  As written, the original bill would "allow teachers to present alternatives to controversial scientific subjects," including evolution, climate change, origin of life, and human cloning. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Representative Bill Dunn (Knoxville) said it created a measure of protection for Tennessee teachers. Opponents said it was a way to allow religion into scientific teachings. The bill passed 70-23 in a final reading in the Tennessee house on April 7, 2011, but stalled in the senate.   
  8. Dunn says he received angry phone calls and emails while the bill was moving through the legislature; in response, he crafted a questionnaire titled, "Are You Smarter Then [sic] A Scientist?"
  9. In an interview with the Southern Education Desk in May 2011, Dunn talked about a number of bills he had in session, including this one.  "Well, it's a bill that has the word evolution in it," he said. "And I've learned if you put that word in a bill, some people come unglued." 
  10. "There's a lot in the scientific community who insist that it's a way to bring creationism into the classroom," Dunn said.  "And as I've pointed out numerous times, not only does the bill have a provision in it that says this shall not be construed to promote religion, there have always been court cases that say you cannot do this. And so state law is not gonna overturn a Supreme Court case."
  11. This isn't the first time Tennessee tackled the question of teaching evolution in modern-day classrooms. The current iteration has brought references to the 1925 Butler Act, challenged in Scopes v. State in 1925. But in 1996, Tennessee legislators had filed another bill that would have suspended teachers who "presented evolution as scientific fact."  That bill made it to the state Senate floor, where it failed 13-20 on a reading.  The state House let it die in committee.  
  12. The 2011 bill quickly moved through both state house and senate legislative committees, but stalled during a legislative break. The senate picked up the debate again in February 2012.