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The Scopes Strategy: Creationists Try New Tactics to Promote Anti-Evolutionary Teaching in Public Schools

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Under the guise of "academic freedom" creationists are co-opting some old heroes of the fight to teach evolution in the classroom for their anti-science campaign

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.


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.


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 (see original link for 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.


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.

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