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Tennessee's Evolution Two-Step

Heather L. Weaver,
Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief
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March 21, 2011

If it’s true that timing is everything in dance, then Tennessee legislators could use a few more lessons if they ever hope to perfect the evolution two-step they are performing this week. Today marks the 86th anniversary of the Butler Act, which was signed into law by Tennessee Gov. Austin Peay on March 21, 1925. The Butler Act criminalized the teaching of evolution or any other principle that "denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible" and sparked one of the most famous legal proceedings of the 20th century — what is often referred to now as the "Scopes Monkey Trial." The trial, during which biology teacher John Scopes (shown right) was defended by ACLU attorneys Clarence Darrow and Arthur Garfield Hays, captured the attention of the nation, and to this day, remains a stain on Tennessee’s public education system.

In light of this unsavory history, you’d think Tennessee legislators would be eager to avoid the spotlight on this issue, especially this week. Instead, they have ensured that they will be center stage, having scheduled a House Education Committee hearing tomorrow on a recently proposed anti-evolution bill. Characterizing the scientific theory of evolution as "controversial," the bill (H.B. 368) purports to give public school teachers freedom to help students think critically about such so-called scientific controversies by reviewing their "strengths" and "weaknesses."

But, there is no controversy in the legitimate scientific community over the validity of evolution; school science curricula already foster students’ critical thinking skills; and the "weaknesses" that proponents of the bill hope teachers will discuss are recycled claims — universally rejected by scientists — that have been made for years by creationism and intelligent design advocates. As Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee recently explained, the true aim of H.B. 368, then, is to permit deviation from established science curricula and "to subvert scientific principle to religious ideology by granting legal cover to teachers who wish to dress up religious beliefs regarding the origin of life as pseudo-science."

Unfortunately, Tennessee legislators are not the only state officials attempting to dance their way around the law on this subject. While anti-evolution bills proposed this year in Kentucky, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Missouri have either died or failed to advance beyond introduction, a Florida measure similar to Tennessee’s H.B. 368 appears to be gaining ground. Before introducing the bill, State Sen. Stephen Wise expressed his hope that it would permit public school teachers to present "intelligent design" alongside evolution lessons, explaining, "If you’re going to teach evolution, then you have to teach the other side so you can have critical thinking."

In addition, Texas (home to the "Texas two-step") is considering a measure that claims to bar discrimination against students or faculty engaged in "research relating to the theory of intelligent design or other alternate theories of the origination and development of organisms." If passed, the law could require university science education programs to hire faculty and to graduate students who reject the scientific theory of evolution not merely as part of their personal belief system (which is, of course, constitutionally protected), but as part of their professional, state-sponsored conduct.

Since the Scopes trial, the federal courts have repeatedly rejected efforts to promote creationism or undermine evolution education in public school science classes. The ACLU has been at the forefront of many of these cases, including Epperson v. Arkansas and Kitzmiller v. Dover. However, as these recent bills make clear, the pro-creationist and anti-science crusaders are determined to flout the First Amendment by injecting their religious viewpoint into our public school curricula. But the ACLU won’t stop fighting against them, either. If it’s a dance-off they want, the ACLU is ready and willing, and we have the Constitution on our side. We’ve got moves too, you know.

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Photo: Smithsonian Institution

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