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Scopes redux in Tennessee

Eighty-six years after the famous Scopes trial, Tennessee lawmakers are still trying to ensure that the state’s public school students are not brainwashed by the Theory of Evolution.

John Scopes, a high school teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, was arrested in 1925 and tried on charges of violating what was then a state law against the teaching of evolution. The trial was a media sensation, and featured fundamentalist Christian and former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and agnostic liberal attorney Clarence Darrow for the defense. Scopes was found guilty (which he clearly was) and fined $100, although the verdict was later overturned on a technicality.

Earlier this month the Tennessee House of Representatives voted 70-28 for a bill that would apparently allow teachers to present intelligent design and creationism to their students as alternatives to evolution.

The bill’s text, if passed into state law, would protect teachers from discipline if they “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,” namely, “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” The bill also says that its “shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine.”

Let’s set aside global warming and human cloning. If any theory is universally accepted by reputable scientists, it’s evolution. In fact if Tennessee schools are employing science teachers who doubt that theory, I have to question their hiring standards.

And setting aside the religion versus science issue: from a business development standpoint, what kind of message would a law like this send to prospective employers? “Locate in Tennessee, where students are prepared for the jobs of tomorrow by being encouraged to doubt universally-accepted science”?

Perhaps having second thoughts, the bill’s sponsor in the Tennessee Senate, Bo Watson, has delayed action on it.

But Louisiana was not so lucky. That state’s legislature passed a similar bill in 2008. And despite a plea from 40 meddlesome Nobel prize-winning scientists, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal (whom we encountered ridiculing the monitoring of volcanic activity) has no plans to advocate repeal.