Today an academic freedom bill in the Tennessee State Legislature passed out of the Tennessee House by a vote of 70-23.
The journal Science has an online newspiece about the bill which states the following:
In a 70-28 vote today, the Tennessee House of Representatives passed HB 368, a bill that encourages science teachers to explore controversial topics without fear of reprisal. Critics say the measure will enable K-12 teachers to present intelligent design and creationism as acceptable alternatives to evolution in the classroom.
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.”
I was interviewed for the story and explained to the reporter why it is incorrect for critics to claim this bill allows the teaching of intelligent design or creationism. Unfortunately, she did not quote those aspects of our conversation.
As regards creationism, I explained that multiple courts have found that creationism is a religious viewpoint and illegal to teach in public schools. Since the bill does not protect the teaching of religion, critics are wrong to claim that creationism could come under the law. As the bill plainly states:
This section only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion.
As regards intelligent design (ID), which is obviously different from creationism, I also explained why ID does not come under the bill. The Tennessee Academic Freedom Bill is worded such that it only intends to protect instruction regarding topics that are already part of the curriculum. As bill states:
Toward this end, 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. (emphasis added)
As seen, the bill only protects instruction concerning “existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.” Evolution is part of the curriculum in every school district in every state, including Tennessee, and is covered in every high school biology course. Thus evolution comes under the bill, and when teachers teach evolution they can teach it objectively.
On the other hand, intelligent design is not presently part of the curriculum in any school district, including Tennessee, and is not covered in any biology classes in Tennessee. Thus ID does not come under the bill. (If ID were part of the curriculum in any Tennessee school district, I assure you we’d be hearing about lawsuits against that school district quite quickly.)
The bill only protects topics that are already covered in the curriculum, and it does not protect teachers that introduce entirely new theories that aren’t already part of the course curriculum. But if a theory is already covered in the curriculum, as is the case with evolution, then teachers are protected if they choose to teach the both scientific strengths and weaknesses.
In sum, if a topic is already part of the curriculum (e.g. evolution), the bill allows a teacher to cover it objectively. If it isn’t (e.g. ID), then the bill provides no protections.
I emphasize this point because it’s apparently lost on some people — like those who report for Science Magazine. In fact, when reporter Sara Reardon interviewed me, she was nice enough, but she seemed to be trying very hard not to understand my point. When I suggested that what I was saying really wasn’t that complicated, she abruptly ended the phone call.