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The Globe and Mail

Evolution a 'controversy'? It is in Tennessee

It took decades for Tennessee to drop the law that punished John Scopes for teaching evolution. And critics say the state is risking a slide back to those obscurantist days with a bill that has landed on the governor's desk.

The bill -- which aims for broader debate in the classroom on what it calls "controversies" such as evolution and climate change -- is part of a growing trend in the United States. Eight other states have similar measures and the effort is being pushed by an activist group that presents the issue as one of open academic enquiry.

But the idea has been met by fierce criticism by scientific, teaching and civil liberties groups, who argue this is a thinly veiled way to introduce religious explanations into the science classroom.

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"This legislation, which perpetuates the teaching of non-science with a seemingly neutral approach, allows creationists to continue to make unfounded attacks against evolution," argues Amanda Rolat, a lawyer with Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Opponents are ramping up efforts to convince Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam not to sign the bill. He has indicated, though, that he "probably" would. A decision is expected Tuesday.

The clash comes as legislators in Tennessee -- which the Wall Street Journal called the "lab" for a "national clash" on science -- have been flexing their traditional muscles. One person is championing a ban on students showing their underwear, others have amended the sex-ed curriculum to minimize teaching about "gateway sexual activity," a vaguely defined term.

Bill 368, which stipulates that teachers could not be penalized for questioning the material in the science curriculum, passed by a wide margin in the Republican-controlled House.

"Teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught," the bill states.

The bill dovetails with a national campaign by the Discovery Center, a group that questions evolution. The Seattle-based group maintains at its Academic Freedom Petition site that students and educators face "intimidation and retaliation" if they voice their own doubts. They call this "antithetical to our traditions as a free society" and note that science requires "robust debate." The site includes a sample bill that can be introduced by legislators seeking fuller debate on evolution.

Tennessee's bill specifies that its goal is not the promotion of religious doctrine and that it applies only to the teaching of scientific information. But critics argue that it is a ruse to allow untested ideas into science classes.

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"We feel that the wording of this legislation clearly allows non-scientific explanations for topics such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning to be introduced into the science classroom," argued Jaclyn Reeves-Pepin, executive director of the National Association of Biology Teachers.

And Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and publisher of the journal Science, derided the notion that the bill would help protect scientific enquiry, noting that "such thinking is already inherent" in the way the subject is taught.

"There is virtually no scientific controversy among the overwhelming majority of researchers on the core facts of evolution and climate change, and these subjects should not be taught as if there were such a controversy," Mr. Leshner wrote in an open letter to the governor.

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