Monkeying Around: Tenn. Governor Refuses To Confront Unconstitutional Creationism Bill

Tennessee's "monkey bill" is a mess, and the governor should never have let it get this far.

Recently a bill reached the desk of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam that would encourage public school teachers to discuss the alleged “controversy” over evolution and offer them legal protection if they teach creationist concepts.

Haslam indicated that he opposed the so-called “monkey bill,” but he refused to veto it. Instead, he allowed it to become law without his signature.

In other words, instead of taking some time to explain to legislators why the bill is misguided, the governor took a walk.

Worse yet, Haslam released a curious message reading, “The bill received strong bipartisan support, passing the House and Senate by a three-to-one margin, but good legislation should bring clarity and not confusion. My concern is that this bill has not met this objective.”

I’ll say it hasn’t. The bill is a mess, and Haslam should never have let it get this far. He’s a Republican governor in a state where members of the GOP run both the House of Representatives and the Senate. He should have used his influence to pull the plug on this bill long before it got this far along. That’s what strong leaders do.

Haslam’s inability to step up will have serious consequences. In his statement, Haslam asserted, “I do not believe that this legislation changes the scientific standards that are taught in our schools or the curriculum that is used by our teachers. However, I also don’t believe that it accomplishes anything that isn’t already acceptable in our schools.”

He’s wrong about that. Teaching creationism in public schools is illegal, and Haslam ought to know that until this bill became law, nothing in the state statutes encouraged such activity. (After all, Tennessee was the site of the famous 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial.”)

Here’s what’s really sad about this: A school district somewhere in the state is going to implement these reckless policies and get sued. The courts have been clear on this. Public schools cannot teach creationism, which is a religious concept favored by some fundamentalist Christians, in science class.

The school district that gets sued probably won’t have the money to defend against a lawsuit. Maybe they’ll get free representation from a Religious Right legal group. When that organization loses the case, which they will, the school district will be handed a bill for the plaintffs’ attorneys’ fees. These can be considerable. They often run into the hundreds of thousands.

Americans United is monitoring a raft of other dubious legislation in Tennessee. A measure that seeks to slip coercive school prayer in through the back door of the schoolhouse is pending. Another measure encourages government buildings, including public schools, to post the Ten Commandments.

AU wrote to legislators in Tennessee and urged them not to pass these bad bills. We pointed out that they would only spark litigation that the state can ill afford.

When that failed, we wrote to Haslam. Unfortunately, he lacked the political wherewithal to do the right thing on the creationist measure. Let’s hope he doesn’t do the same when these other dangerous bills reach his desk.

The schoolchildren of Tennessee deserve a sound education free of government-sanctioned proselytizing. The governor should see that they get it.