The Tennessee state Senate passed a bill Monday that protects teachers who allow student to question and criticize "controversial" scientific theories like evolution.
The Senate voted 24-8 for SB 893, which would allow teachers to help students "understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories" like "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning."
"The idea behind this bill is that students should be encouraged to challenge current scientific thought and theory," Republican state Sen. Bo Watson told The Tennesseean. Watson is the bill's sponsor.
The proposal also instructs teachers on how to comfortably and appropriately "address students' concerns about certain scientific theories" within a curriculum established by the Board of Education. The bill would not affect the state's science curriculum.
Democratic opponents of the bill, however, question whether the motives behind the measure are more political than educational. Democratic Sen. Andy Berke said the bill would cast Tennessee in a negative light, referencing the state's historical battleground for evolution in education.
"We're simply dredging up the problems of our past with this bill that will affect our future," Berke told The Tennessean. "I'm a person of faith. If my children ask, 'How does that mesh with my faith?' I don't want their teacher answering that question."
The measure has also drawn staunch opposition from several groups, including the National Center for Science Education and the American Civil Liberties Union. In a statement to legislators, eight Tennesseans who are members of the National Academy of Science said the bill will likely lead to "scientifically unwarranted criticisms of evolution," the Knoxville News-Sentinel reports.
"By undermining the teaching of evolution in Tennessee's public schools, HB368 and SB893 would miseducate students, harm the state's national reputation, and weaken its efforts to compete in a science-driven global economy," the statement reads.
A version of the legislation passed the state House last April, and now the revised Senate version returns to the House for a vote. Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday he would discuss the bill with the state Board of Education.
"It is a fair question what the general assembly's role is," he said. "That's why we have a state board of education."
The move among Tennessee lawmakers is one of several across the country that seeks more wiggle room for discussion or of intelligent design in public schools. Indiana legislators in January moved forward on a bill that would allow school districts to decide whether to include creationism alongside teachings of evolution in science curriculum.
Oklahoma, New Hampshire and Missouri have also considered similar bills designed to encourage critical examination of evolution theory.
Research from two Pennsylvania State University professors revealed last year that the majority of public school biology teachers in the U.S. shy away from teaching evolution because they're either unwilling or unprepared to teach it: some advocate creationism while others are afraid to address the topic for fear of controversy.
According to results of the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal test known as the Nation's Report Card, less than half of U.S. fourth-, eighth- and 12-th grade students were considered proficient in science.