In the town of Dayton, Tennessee, 87 years ago, John T. Scopes was charged with violating the Butler Act for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution in his classroom; the now-infamous Scopes Monkey Trial ensued. This month, Tennessee lawmakers passed HB 368 by a margin of 3-1, requiring “teachers to respond to debate and dispute that may occur when certain scientific subjects are taught in the classroom,” according to State Senator Bo Watson (R). Under the law, a teacher’s response to science questions requires discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories, possibly opening the door for discussion of religion, particularly as it relates to evolution, global warming and cloning. Watson added that the legislation is aimed at improving students’ critical thinking and ability to analyze information.
Aside from the obvious issues of constitutionality, why would any responsible adult entrust their parental duty to the development of their child’s religious beliefs to an elementary or secondary school science teacher? Apparently, many parents have taken issue with the law, inundating the legislature and school board with letters voicing their objection. Simply stated, a parent’s responsibility does not belong in the hands of public education; although Tennessee’s Blount County Board of Education, which rejected three high school biology textbooks for not including creationism in a vote of 6-1, would seem to disagree.
Tennessee’s new law states in part, “This…shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine…” Regardless of what the law claims, HB 368 is merely a backdoor attempt to introduce religion into public education and forcibly impose religious dogma on children without parental consent. However, the law avoids making creationism or reading from the Bible part of the school’s curriculum. This approach seeks to satisfy the federal court’s test established in Lemon v. Kurtzman, which requires that legislation concerning religion have a secular purpose, that it does not result in the government becoming excessively entangled with religion and that its primary purpose is not to advance religion. However clever this legislation appears, the Supreme Court has exposed religiously motivated efforts far less obvious, such as in the case of silent prayer, wherein not a word is spoken but religious views are still clearly expressed.
Both legal and scientific experts believe this attempt to introduce religion into the classroom will fail the Lemon v. Kurtzman test when it is challenged in a court of law. However, this contention did not placate scientific organizations, many of which came out in force opposing the legislation. Members of the National Academy of Sciences authored an article in The Tennessean condemning the legislation. The Tennessee Science Teachers Association and the National Earth Science Teachers Association also opposed the legislation.
In response to this objection, Tennessee’s State Rep. Bill Dunn (R) referred to scientists as alarmists and claimed that the law does not threaten science, though he conveniently failed to mention the bill’s assault on the separation of church and state and parents’ rights. Paradoxically, legislative support for this law failed to take notice of the over 12,000 US Christian clergy who acknowledge the theory of evolution as a foundational scientific truth, according to members of the National Academy of Sciences.
On a very basic level, Tennessee lawmakers and school board members have declared war on the rights of parents over public education, as they relate to their children’s religious development. A child’s faith is solely a parent’s responsibility to decide and shape. No one in our society (politician, priest, educator or minister) has the right or charge to presume this responsibility without parental consent. This basic right cannot be compromised by legislation like that in Tennessee, nor should it be imposed on educators who may or may not be persons of faith. Who, in the school system or legislature, will decide whether to read from the Bible or the Koran as a means of ensuring equity in the presentation of alternative beliefs for the alleged purpose of developing critical thinking and analysis? And what of those parents who acknowledge the importance of science? Do they not have a right to protect their children from the ambiguity created in debate and discussion?
This action by Tennessee law makers is a case of religious extremism seeking to impose religious dogma on children, disregard the constitution and undermine a parent’s right and duty to their child’s faith and development. Apparently not enough critical thinking or analysis went into the new law.