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Many readers of this blog are no doubt, like me, a bit disappointed (though not entirely surprised) that a creationist-friendly law protecting so-called “academic freedom” of teachers is now on the books in Tennessee. The “Monkey Law”, as has been labeled in honor of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial from 1925 , would seek to encourage teachers in the state's public schools to present the "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses" of topics that arouse "debate and disputation" such as "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning."

Indeed, as the National Center for Science Education notes:

"Maybe it has a no-religion clause," the Tennessean characterized the law's critics as arguing, "but it gives a wink to teachers looking to promote their beliefs in the classroom — a move that would launch costly lawsuits that history shows school districts tend to lose." Hedy Weinberg, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, told the newspaper that her group is in touch with concerned parents across the state, "waiting for one to report First Amendment violations teachers could make under the mistaken notion that they now have full protection."

A very similar law promoting this somewhat Orwellian notion of academic freedom was enacted in Louisiana in 2008. Of course, anyone who has followed the creationist movement for any amount of time sees quite clearly what is going on here: after their high-profile defeat in the Dover v. Kitzmiller trial in 2005, where they tried to push for explicitly including creationism (under the re-labeling of “intelligent design”), creationists are now falling back on an old, but tried and true, tactic – attacking and attempting to weaken the teaching of evolution. [Aside: Note that when I mention “creationists” I am referring to the usual, fundamentalist Christian variety so common in the United States, the young-earth variety. This is quite important, for reasons you’ll see later.]

My guess is that the thinking from the creationists is probably along these lines: we have these children in our churches where we can teach them the “truth”, so all we need to do is discourage the schools from teaching evolution. By keeping these children ignorant of evolution (and science in general), the creationists win by default; hence the language in the “Monkey Law” emphasizing the teaching of the non-existent “scientific weaknesses” of evolution. This is basically code telling the creationists to make up whatever fiction they wish about evolution and teach these straw man notions in public school science classes. And by doing so, the creationists then automatically steer the students in the direction of non-scientific alternative explanations.

Speaking of non-scientific alternatives, let us note that the new Tennessee law also makes specific references to the science of global warming and human cloning, both increasingly hot-button issues for social and religious conservatives in the United States. But, interestingly, the language is more open-ended and doesn’t stop explicitly at those topics; in fact, the language states that "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses" of topics that arouse "debate and disputation". Note that the law doesn’t specify among whom these topics can arouse debate and disputation. And I think it is on this point that the Tennessee lawmakers may end up getting hoisted by their own petard. I’m not referring to the inevitable lawsuits which will come along once some teacher starts to teach creationism explicitly (lawsuits which the state will, in all likelihood, lose). Rather, I am referring to the potential lawsuits that other wacky and non-scientific ideas are not being taught in Tennessee public school science classes.

Allow me to reference a humorous, yet very instructive, story about the failure of a creationist-friendly bill in Indiana a few months ago in order to make my point more clearly. This bill was originally intended as a way of promoting creationism explicitly, stating: “The governing body of a school corporation may require the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science, within the school corporation.”

However, soon after it was introduced in the Indiana state senate, a very clever and forward-thinking lawmaker successfully amended the bill to read as follows: “The governing body of a school corporation may offer instruction on various theories of the origin of life. The curriculum for the course must include theories from multiple religions, which may include, but is not limited to, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Scientology.” [emphasis added]

Once this language was accepted into the text of the bill, and once the formerly supportive lawmakers fully understood the implications, the bill was dropped like a hot potato and scuttled. That’s because these lawmakers, in their zeal to garner votes from creationist-friendly constituencies in an election year, realized that the amended language would open up the classroom door to ideas of creationism different from the usual young-earth variety favored by fundamentalist Christians. Rather than truly go down the road of teaching all views, which would inevitably arouse the wrath of the creationists, these lawmakers saw the handwriting on the wall and wisely dropped the bill. Of course, this fiasco puts on full display the hypocrisy of the creationist movement: hide behind the language of “fairness”, “academic freedom”, and (my favorite) “teaching all views” and then push one non-scientific alternative exclusively.

But, beyond showing the creationists’ hypocrisy, it also shows how laws like those in Louisiana and Tennessee can potentially be countered: call the creationists’ bluff by holding them to the “academic freedom” and “teach all views” ideas implied in their own laws.

For example, conceivably, one could file lawsuits against Louisiana and Tennessee schools for not teaching the “debate and disputation” that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the creator of the universe. Why not a lawsuit when the schools refuse to teach the atheistic version of “intelligent design” as outlined by the Raelian cult, where the creator of humanity is an advanced alien race instead of God? Not to mention, might we see lawsuits based upon the exclusion of Islamic notions of creationism? Beyond evolution and creationism, could we even see lawsuits when the notion of the Four Element Model – invoking earth, air, fire, and water – is excluded from chemistry classes? What about when the Transcendental Meditationists’ view (basically, to them there’s no such thing as gravity) is turned down in physics classes? When astrology comes knocking on the door in astronomy and earth science classes, will it be turned away, risking another lawsuit? I think you get the idea.

Were this sort of silliness to come to pass, no doubt it would cause innumerable headaches for both the public school systems and legislatures in Louisiana and Tennessee, partly because of the sheer embarrassment of the circus it would create and the arousal of the creationists’ fury that their views, and theirs alone, are not the only alternative being pushed.

In fact, it just might cause so many headaches for the lawmakers that they could end up rescinding their so-called “academic freedom” laws altogether, going back to the old days where evolution and other scientifically accepted ideas were exclusively taught in public school science classes, while creationism and similar notions were taught in philosophy or comparative religion classes.


Matt Lowry is a high school & college physics professor with a strong interest in promoting science education, skepticism and critical thinking among his students and the population in general. Towards these ends, he works with the JREF on their educational advisory board, and he also works with a number of grassroots skeptical, pro-science groups. In what little spare time he has, he blogs on these and related subjects at The Skeptical Teacher.