Tennessee monkey bill

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Insidious legislation
Teach the controversy
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In your congress
AN ACT to amend Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 49, Chapter 6, Part 10, relative to teaching scientific subjects in elementary schools.

The 2012 Tennessee "monkey bill" is an anti-evolution bill with the intent of enabling the criticism of that science — along with global warming and human cloning — that passed into law in April 2012, though without Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam's signature.[1]


Known officially as House Bill 368/Senate Bill 893, the bill contends that:

The teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy; and ... [s]ome teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects.

Nevertheless, the bill in no way clarifies the subject. Instead, the bill demands that an "environment" be created that:

...encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues.

Which is all well and good, except that it is standard creationist bill language — a similar passage is present in the Louisiana Academic Freedom Act. The bill also includes the "strengths and weaknesses" language common in some bill varieties, with teachers to be encouraged to:

...find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies. 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.

The bill also includes the standard we're-not-trying-to-teach-religion safety paragraph:

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.

All this is an attempt to circumvent rules preventing the teaching of creationism in the classroom by protecting teachers' ability — to the extent of outright encouraging them — to use creationist materials specifically targeted at attacking evolution. With this in mind, it is ironic that the bill also concedes that:

An important purpose of science education is to inform students about scientific evidence and to help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to becoming intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens;

The bill will almost certainly have the opposite effect.


I think two 'monkey bills' in a century has got to be up there in terms of how people see Tennessee, and that's unfortunate because there's great science that goes on there.

—Joshua Rosenau, of the NCSE, quoted in the Chattanooga Times Free Press.[2]

Naturally, the bill has attracted significant criticism. The National Center for Science Education was of course highly critical. Eugenie C. Scott did a number of interviews attacking the bill,[3] and the NCSE website recorded much of the controversy.


Local and out-of-state newspapers were also critical. A Los Angeles Times editorial called the motives behind the bill "dumb,"[4] while a Murfreesboro Daily News Journal editorial claimed that the legislature showed "a general disrespect for scientific academia in favor of running its religious views up a flagpole."[5]

In The Tennessean, science writer Leslie Brunetta noted that such bills as this were bad for the health of her fellow cancer sufferers.[6] The American Society of Human Genetics released a statement after the bill passed noting its disappointment.[7] Nature also ran a critical story on the bill.[8]


There was some opposition to the bill even within creationist circles. Todd Wood, of the notorious Bryan College, wrote a letter to the Governor expressing his point of view. It got taken down fairly quickly;[9] however, it survived long enough in the Google cache to be preserved.[10]

Wood's primary argument in the letter was that the bill was in fact unnecessary, and that teachers already had the freedom to teach about real scientific controversies. However, a Panda's Thumb blogger, Nick Matzke, noted that Wood "for a long time one of the only self-critical, independent, and somewhat realistic voices within creationism, just doesn’t think that pushing ID/creationism via government power and the public schools is a good idea."[9]

Some days later, Wood put up a blog post further explaining his position.[11] Josh Rosenau wrote a commentary on this new post,[12] and Matzke also posted on it.[13] While Wood had apparently taken down the letter of his own free will, he reported that the Discovery Institute had circulated a letter "trying to drum up some resistance on the Bryan campus to my opinion."[11]

I guess Todd Wood, young-earther and professor at William Jennings Bryan College, isn’t creationist enough for the Discovery Institute’s John West! And that’s quite something.
—Nick Matzke, Todd Wood and Tennesee’s New Monkey Law[13]


After the bill passed the legislature on March 29,[14] there were widespread calls for Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam to veto the bill, including from the local branch of the ACLU.[15] However, at the end of the day, Haslam neither signed nor vetoed the bill.

Given that the Tennessee legislature only requires a simple majority to overturn a veto,[16][17] and the wide majority with which the bill originally passed, a veto would have had little effect beyond putting up a token resistance. Instead, he made the following statement:

I have reviewed the final language of HB 368/SB 893 and assessed the legislation’s impact. I have also evaluated the concerns that have been raised by the bill. 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. 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. For that reason, I will not sign the bill but will allow it to become law without my signature.
—Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam[18]

Whether this is a cop-out or not is a matter of opinion. Certainly, it bears a resemblance to former Governor Austin Peay's statement when he signed the Butler Act on March 21, 1925:

After a careful examination, I can find nothing of consequence in the books now being taught in our schools with which this bill will interfere in the slightest manner. Therefore, it will not put our teachers in jeopardy. Probably the law will never be applied. It may not be sufficiently definite to permit of any specific application...
—Austin Peay[19]

And we all know what happened to that...


Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

George Santayana

As has been repeatedly alluded to in the press, there is a high chance that the bill will find itself in the courts, Scopes trial-style. However, given the lack of direct invocation and litigation over the Louisiana act since its enactment in 2008, this could take some time.

In the meantime, it is certain to negatively impact both the standard of science education in Tennessee and public perception of the state.

See also[edit]