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Tennessee Devolving

John Thomas Scopes

In 1925, the Tennessee state legislature passed the Butler Act, Tennessee Code Annotated Title 49 (Education) Section 1922. The law prohibited the teach of the evolution of man from “lower orders of animals” and authorized only the teaching of Biblical creationism. The American Civil Liberties Union asked for a volunteer to go to trial over this law. John Thomas Scopes, a substitute teacher who had taught a unit on evolution in a biology class came forward.

The trial was the first ever broadcast on radio in America. The prosecution brought in famed lawyer William Jennings Bryan and the ACLU hired Clarence Darrow to defend Scopes. The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes became known as the “Scopes Monkey Trial.” To make a long story short, the Tennessee court upheld the law, ruling that it did not establish a state religion, but canceled the trial because Scopes was no longer employed by the schools. Since the trial was dismissed, the ACLU lost its opportunity to take the case to the United States Supreme Court. That didn’t happen until 1968 in Epperson v. Arkansas 393 U.S. 97 (1968), which was decided a year after the Tennessee legislature had finally repealed the Butler Act. The Supreme Court ruled that any law that demands the teaching of a religious principle in the public schools violates the First Amendment.

That was then, back in the enlightened year of 1968. This is now, in the backward year of 2012, when fundamentalist Christians are demanding more and more laws based on their interpretation of the Bible or on religious principles that have virtually nothing to do with the word of Christ.

Tennessee has passed a law that allows public school teachers to insert their personal religious views into the classroom by allowing them to challenge the scientific view of climate change and evolution.

Specifically, the law tells teachers they can “help students understand, analyze, critique and reveiw in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.” It also states that the law “shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine.” By avoiding an outright advocacy of the teaching of allegedly Biblical doctrine about evolution and climate change, the law avoids the possibility of a court challenge based on the First Amendment. But the law is based on “model legislation” created by the Discovery Institute, which supports the teaching of “Intelligent Design,” which is based on the idea that God created through the means of evolution.

Intelligent Design is an idea that in some forms has been around since the 4th and 5th centuries. The first person to write down the outline of the idea was St. Augustine of Hippo, (354 – 430) as part of his “rationes seminales.” Augustine didn’t go as far as suggesting the earth was older than 6,000 years or that man had evolved over tens of thousands of years, but his writing gave birth to the idea that God could create through alternative methods. The idea has had periods of popularity, but was fairly dormant until evolution became the law of the land. Now, fundamentalist Christians push it as a cover for creationism.

Tennessee governor Tom Haslam did not sign the law, but allowed it to become law without his signature. He said in a statement that he does not believe the legislation “changes the scientific standards that are taught in our schools. However, I also don’t believe that it accomplishes anything that isn’t already acceptable in our schools.” Haslam could not veto the law. The legislature had enough votes to override any veto. But, he also noted in his statement that “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.”

In surveys, four out of ten Americans said they believe the earth was created by God just 10,000 years ago. But you want to hear the scary one? About five years ago, I somehow found myself in a conversation about evolution in the schools with a woman at work. I mentioned St. Augustine and his Seminal Principles and how they offered a middle path between pure Biblical creationism and scientific evolution She threw a hex sign up in my face, crossed her index fingers against each other and held them up like she was warding off a vampire. She backed away from me. Really? Seriously? What the hell did she think I was going to do to her – bite her neck to turn her into an evolutionist?

The creation part of the anti-science movement obviously comes from a literal belief in the story of the Creation in Genesis. The anti-climate change is a bit harder to pin down. Where did God say anything about whether or not mans’ activities could impact the climate of the planet? The best that fundamentalists come up with for this is Genesis 1:26, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’” The idea is that we can trash the planet because it is ours. Under President Reagan we had a Secretary of the Interior who was a little more forthright about his opposition to protecting the environment. According to James G. Watt, the earth was about to be destroyed by God in the Rapture, so why bother? He only lasted two years in the job. When they say “take back our country” do they really mean “back to 1925″? Of course, if that’s what they really want, we could limit them to the world of 1925. The first thing they have to give up is antibiotics.

The Detroit Free Press, cartoonist and date unknown

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