Depending on whose press release you believe, Tennessee's new science law either promotes "academic freedom" or "allows creationism to be taught in public schools."
Enacted on April 10, the legislation instructs school officials not to prohibit teachers from informing students about the "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses" of "scientific controversies" such as biological evolution.
Science education groups are outraged, arguing that the law has nothing to do with academic freedom and everything to do with finding new ways to undermine the teaching of evolution with trumped-up "controversies" and unscientific "weaknesses" disguised as science.
Dubbed the "monkey bill" by opponents, Tennessee's law is the latest round in the long-running battle over teaching evolution in the science curriculum of public schools.
In 1925, Tennessee teacher John Scopes was famously convicted of violating a state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution. But today, the curriculum shoe is on the other foot.
Anti-evolution laws like the one challenged by Scopes have been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. And the theory of evolution - considered settled science by the vast majority of scientists - is a key component of science education.
Now it's opponents of evolution demanding to be heard in the science classroom.
Tennessee's new law is similar to one enacted in Louisiana in 2008 and to others recently debated in at least four states. Abandoning the failed strategy of pushing for inclusion of creationism or intelligent design in the science curriculum, anti-evolution forces now advocate "teaching the controversy" about evolution (and, to avoid singling out evolution, other purported "controversies" such as global warming).
In an attempt to preempt First Amendment challenges, the Tennessee law states that nothing in the legislation is to be "construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine."
Anti-evolutionists, of course, can readily support language prohibiting promotion of religion in schools since they maintain that creationism and intelligent design are not religious, but rather "scientific alternatives" to evolution.
And there's the rub: What's religious to one side is science to the other. Under the new law, Tennessee teachers apparently get to decide what counts as science (and what counts as "weakness" in scientific theories) - even if most scientists disagree. Critics of the law see this as a green light for teaching creationism or other religiously based ideas as science.
They may be right. What Tennessee lawmakers tout as academic freedom (a freedom, by the way, denied to teachers in every other subject), is very likely to be used as a Trojan horse for inserting religious convictions into the science curriculum.
A far better approach would be to address the religion-science debate up front by preparing teachers to teach students something about the history and philosophy of science, including the interaction between religion and science over time. Helping students understand the context for the culture-war fight over evolution may help them accept what modern science has to say.
Learning about various religious worldviews is an important part of a good education. But it is unconstitutional to present those worldviews as science. Public schools have a legal and educational mandate to teach what is widely accepted in the scientific community as sound science, even when that science tells people what they don't want to hear.
The Tennessee law uses all the right language about helping students develop "critical thinking skills" necessary to become "scientifically informed citizens."
But giving teachers carte blanche to attack evolution and promote religion isn't the way to achieve that goal.
Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. www.firstamendmentcenter.org