Tennessee Legislature Subtly Authorizes Religious Instruction

On Monday, March 19th the Tennessee Legislature passed House Bill 368. The confusing double negative language of the bill prohibits school administrators from prohibiting teachers from helping students critique scientific theories. Support of critical scientific thinking from the Tennessee Legislature is unexpected and inspiring, to the point of raising eyebrows and red flags. Like a leopard can't change its spots, but is a master of camouflage; the Tennessee Legislature refused to give up on religion in public schools, so they disguised it. In place of an explicit endorsement of religion, the legislature cleverly inserts a prohibition on prohibitions. This is not their first use of this tactic to subtly insert religion into the public school curriculum. The Tennessee Legislature succeeded using this method in regards to school prayer (TCA §49-6-1004. Moment of silence; prayer) and Bible study (TCA §49-6-1062. Nonreligious academic Bible study; influence on the arts).

If the purpose of the House Bill 368 truly is to encourage critical scientific thinking, then it is at best unnecessary. That is why a bill that gives science teachers more instructional freedom is opposed by the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Center for Science Education, the National Association of Biology Teachers and all eight Tennessee members of the National Academy of Sciences. Critical thinking is already an integral piece of science education. Analyzing theories through the scientific process is already taught in classrooms and science fairs across the country and in Tennessee.

Evolution is named in the bill, with global warming, as a controversial theory that requires more critique and review. Evolution may be a religious and political controversy, but it is not a scientific controversy. As the Tennessee Science Teachers Association stated in their letter to the Tennessee House Education Committee, "...the scientific theory of evolution is accepted by mainstream scientists around the world..."

By authorizing unnecessary and non-scientific curriculum changes, it is clear the true purpose of this bill is to introduce non-scientific alternatives, such as creationism and intelligent design, into the public school science classroom. Any form of religious education in public schools violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Despite multiple courts striking down Tennessee's past public school religious instruction mandates, the message that their actions are unconstitutional was not received. The Tennessee Legislature perceives the Establishment Clause not as a right or the law, but as a problem to work around. Using a double prohibition to disingenuously authorize critical thinking to slip non-scientific alternatives into the science curriculum is brilliant, in an evil genius way.

UPDATE: This is now the law in Tennessee. Governor Bill Haslam did not veto or sign the bill, but Tennessee procedure dictates that a bill will become law if the Governor takes no action on it. Governor Haslam's decision to neither support nor reject the bill bolsters the argument that the contention surrounding evolution is more political than scientific.


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