Now, more than 80 years after the famous "Scopes Monkey Trial" in Tennessee, creationism proponents are pushing for state legislation there that could make it easier for teachers to bring unscientific ideas back into the science classroom in public schools. To bolster their cause, the backers of the new bills are invoking none other than teacher John Scopes, the trial's pro-evolution defendant, as an icon of independent thinking.

"…[T]oday's evolutionary scientists have become the modern-day equivalents of those who tried to silence Rhea County schoolteacher John Scopes for teaching evolution in 1925, by limiting even an objective discussion of the scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory," David Fowler, head of the Family Action Council of Tennessee and chief lobbyist behind Tennessee's proposed anti-evolution bill, wrote recently in an op–ed in the Chattanoogan.

Scopes had been charged with violating the Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools. Thus, creationists say, he certainly would have supported a law that encouraged the teaching of all sides of "controversial issues"—such as the bill some are working to pass in Tennessee as part of a post–intelligent design (ID) campaign to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution. If adopted, this language would send a positive message to teachers inclined to introduce creationism and ID into the classroom when discussing biology and the origins of life.

Trouble in Tennessee
Following the drubbing they received in the constitutional test case of Tammy Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania five years ago (which kept explicit teaching of intelligent design, or ID, out of public schools) creationists shelved the ID language—at least publicly—and shifted their approach. More recently, they have tried to codify versions of the "strengths and weaknesses" language in states across the country—an effort that has so far met with limited success. The closest that creationists came to getting such terminology on the books was in 2008 in Louisiana, where an initial "academic freedom" bill included the phrase, but was replaced with more watered-down language that nonetheless left the door open to teaching creationism, some science educators say.

Texas's State Board of Education (SBOE) tried to preserve ambiguous language in its science curriculum in 2009. (The wording had been on the books since the 1990s, having originally been inserted as a compromise to appease creationists.) But after religious conservative members of the board were unable to garner majority support, they dropped it in favor of phrases, albeit also dubious, that included the statement students should "analyze and evaluate the sufficiency of scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis and the sequential nature of groups in the fossil records."

The home state of the Scopes Trial is now on the verge of adopting the "strengths and weakness" language with the February 8 introduction of House Bill 368 (pdf). A week later, its identical counterpart, SB 893, was introduced in the senate. Whereas similar bills in Oklahoma and New Mexico have already perished in committee this year, observers are watching Tennessee's developments warily.

"The fact that it's moving so quickly is a matter of concern," says Josh Rosenau, a spokesperson for the National Center for Science Education, a watchdog organization that monitors attacks on classroom teaching of evolution. "There appears to be some momentum behind it, which suggests it could pass."

Strengths and weaknesses
As with other anti-evolution bills, the Tennessee legislation does not actually mandate the inclusion of creationist or ID teachings. Rather, it says that educators may not be prohibited from "helping 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."

As in the Louisiana law, those theories can include "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning." The bill goes on to say that this only applies to scientific information, and is not "to be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine."

On the surface, the language looks like something that all scientists would gladly embrace: Promote critical thinking? Certainly! But opponents of the legislation say that the bills' backers' intent is instead designed to undercut the teaching of evolution and open doors to creationism and intelligent design.

As with other anti-evolution bills, Tennessee's seems to be based on sample legislation written and promoted by the pro-ID Discovery Institute.

Sponsor Rep. Bill Dunn (R–Knoxville) said Fowler submitted the legislation to him in early February. The latter's organization is associated with James Dobson's conservative Christian Focus on the Family and advocates for "biblical values" and "godly officials."

Dunn could not explain why a Christian organization would be pushing legislation that supposedly has nothing to do with inserting religion into science class. He referred the question to Fowler.

Fowler, who would not say whether he is a young earth creationist ("I think that's irrelevant," he noted), said he is trying to correct the "dogmatic" presentation of science in the classroom. "This is about open discourse," he said, adding, "Good education requires critical thinking."

Fowler has spoken with members of the Discovery Institute—he would not say specifically whom—and said he drafted the Tennessee bill based on sample legislation the Institute created.

Dunn explains: "We've reversed the roles of the Scopes Trial. All we're saying is let's put all the scientific facts on the table."

Dunn said the bill would not allow the teaching of intelligent design. But in his Chattanoogan op–ed piece Fowler specifically says it would protect a teacher who wanted to teach the concept, which a federal court ruled unconstitutional in Kitzmiller v. Dover.

"The bill is likely to result in significant violations of students' and parents' First Amendment rights," says Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. "It is not necessary; and it threatens to undermine science education across the state, endangering the educational and employment futures of Tennessee's students as well as the state's own economic and job prospects."

With 60 percent of U.S. public high school biology teachers already shying away from evolution in the classroom, according to the results of a recent Pennsylvania State University survey, these anti-evolution bills send a warning message to ambivalent teachers to avoid the subject, Rosenau said.

Separation of church and state
While the fight heats up in Tennessee, anti-evolution battles continue in other states.

Next month, Texas's SBOE will begin the four-month review process of "supplemental materials," which will be used in place of costly new science textbooks. The creationist sympathies of several members of a board-appointed volunteer review panel have raised questions about whether the SBOE intends to use these additional publications to eventually open a door to creationism and ID-friendly materials into the classroom.

Meanwhile, in Louisiana a 17-year-old Baton Rouge Magnet High School student has begun a long-shot campaign to get lawmakers to repeal the state's anti-evolution law. Zack Kopplin has lined up support of one senator, who has said she is willing to introduce the legislation. Gene Mills of the Louisiana Family Forum (also affiliated with Focus on the Family) said he welcomes the attempt. "It's healthy to have discussions," Mills says, "but I don't think it's going anywhere."

Forty years after Scopes was found guilty for teaching evolution, he mused about an alternative outcome for his case if it had gone to the Supreme Court: "The Butler Act was an effort on the part of a religious group, the fundamentalists, to impose by law their religious beliefs on the rest of society. Our Founding Fathers, acquainted with the bloody religious wars in Europe, had written into the Constitution the right of religious freedom and had further provided, by means of the doctrine of the separation of church and state, that no religious group should control or unduly influence any arm of secular government. I believe that had we reached the Supreme Court we would have been victorious on this issue."

A Tennessee House subcommittee hearing for the state's "strengths and weaknesses" bill was continued from last week to give expert witnesses on both sides time to prepare. The hearing will resume Wednesday.