The Teacher Protection Academic Freedom Act

Tennessee’s new law guarantees teachers’ rights to teach the controversies in science.

Tennessee teachers will soon have legal protection to teach students about genuine scientific controversies. The bill passed by a three-to-one margin and should take effect on April 20.

Thanks to Tennessee legislators who wish to protect academic freedom and improve the science education of their constituents’ children in public schools, Tennessee teachers will soon have legal protection to teach students about genuine scientific controversies. With strong bipartisan support, the bill passed by a three-to-one margin and should take effect on April 20.

What the Law Will and Will Not Protect

Teachers in Tennessee will no longer need to fear allowing their students to see how science really works. They will be able to explain the importance of basing scientific conclusions on observable data. Teachers will be able to discuss the assumptions underlying popular but controversial scientific positions.

In the words of the new law, school officials

Shall endeavor to assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies. Toward this end, teachers shall be permitted to help 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.1

What teachers will not be able to do is to promote any religious belief. The new law specifically states that it

Only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion.2

Therefore, media reports asserting that Tennessee law has introduced “creationism theory into science curriculum,”3 and similar claims are simply wrong. The law does not permit or promote the teaching of intelligent design or creation science.4 But thanks to the new law, teachers and their students need not feel intimidated when they wish to critically analyze commonly accepted scientific conclusions, and they will be encouraged to do so. Teachers will never have to feel they must protect their jobs by pretending no controversy exists.

The Law’s Purpose: to Encourage Critical Examination of Evidence

The new law states,

An important purpose of science education is to inform students about scientific evidence and to help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to becoming intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens. … The teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy.5

During the famous Scopes trial of 1925, ACLU attorney Clarence Darrow championed John Scopes’s right to teach controversial scientific material from Hunter’s Biology textbook—namely, material about human evolution from ape-like ancestors. Knowing the Butler Act’s restriction on this, “Scopes said that any teacher in the state who was teaching Hunter’s Biology was violating the law; that science teachers could not teach Hunter’s Biology without violating the law.”6 It seems ironic that now that freedom to teach controversial scientific ideas in public school is being guaranteed, those who view Scopes’s and Darrow’s cause sympathetically wish to restrict free discussions in the science classroom.

As an additional bit of irony, John Scopes never actually taught evolution but volunteered for an ACLU effort to overturn the state’s Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching that man evolved from ape-like ancestors. However, contrary to popular opinion fostered by many in the media, Hollywood’s Inherit the Wind, and poor science instruction, the Butler Act did permit all other forms of evolutionary teaching. Furthermore, the textbook containing the ape-like ancestor teaching that was prohibited by the Butler Act used the concept to promote an extremely racist view, even advocating Darwinian eugenics. The textbook, Hunter’s A Civic Biology, taught there were presently “on earth five races … of man, each very different from the other. The first is the Ethiopian or Negro type, originating in Africa … and finally, the highest type of all, the Caucasians.”7 And for solutions to the problem of inferior people, this 1914 public school biology text—championed by Darrow and the ACLU—concluded,

If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways of preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and are now meeting with success in this country.8

In yet another ironic twist, the “scientific evidence” Darrow had entered into the court record consisted of an array of now-discredited “proofs” of evolution such as Piltdown man and Haeckel’s evidence of embryonic recapitulation, both now known to be frauds. This was the “enlightened science” promoted by Darrow.9

Tennessee’s new law states that Tennessee schools need to encourage students

To explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues.10

With all of these statements, we at Answers in Genesis heartily agree. And from reading and listening to some of the comments circulating about this Tennessee law and similar issues, it seems many adults need some remedial education in that last goal—the one about “responding appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinions about controversial issues”!

What Controversy?

In the opinion of some who claim to represent all legitimate scientists and educators, no scientific controversy regarding evolution (or climate change) even exists. For instance, a petition organizer on staff at Vanderbilt recently stated, “As a science teacher I would say there is no controversy over evolution or climate change in the scientific literature.”11 Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) says, “Telling students that evolution and climate change are scientifically controversial is mis-educating them. Good science teachers know that.”12 And the Washington Post states that the problem with allowing teachers to “help critique ‘scientific weaknesses’”13 is that “there is no important ‘scientific weakness’ in the theory of evolution that could scientifically undermine its essential truth. Scientists agree that it is the animating principle of modern biology. Scientists also agree on the reality of climate change.” 14

Are the controversies surrounding these subjects merely the figments of legislators’ imaginations? No. The Tennessee legislators, it seems, have done their homework. These controversies are legitimate, and scientists and teachers who point out that so-called “established science”15 has “scientific weaknesses” do not forfeit their credibility.

For example, Andrew Snelling, who holds a PhD in geology from the University of Sydney in Australia, points out that the debate over climate change is far from a settled issue even among secular scientists. He says, “There is a lot of controversy, not over climate change itself, as everyone agrees climate changes, but over the cause of such changes, specifically whether man has contributed significantly to such changes. I am personally aware of several secular professional scientific societies whose memberships are very divided on this issue, and the continuing debate is heated. Therefore to assert there is no controversy over climate change is utterly deceitful. Students should be told the truth about this debate among professional scientists.”

Quality Science Education

Teaching students to critically analyze scientific conclusions will not “gut science education”16 in Tennessee. And nothing in the law will alter existing curriculum,17 despite assertions that teachers will now be allowed “to deviate from the established science curriculum.”18 In fact, the new law may well improve the way science is taught! As Georgia Purdom, who holds a PhD in molecular genetics from the Ohio State University, explains, “I am glad that the new Tennessee law seems to afford protection to teachers who wish to critique evolution and global warming in the classroom. As a former college professor, I can attest to the importance of critical thinking skills in the science classroom. The ability to analyze the scientific weaknesses of evolution and global warming will ultimately benefit students.”

And despite the Washington Post writer’s assertion, Dr. Purdom adds, “Evolution cannot be the ‘animating principle of modern biology’ since molecules-to-man evolution falls under the category of historical science and not observational science. There is no doubt that living organisms change; this is something we can observe. But the type of change involves the loss of genetic information and not the gain of new genetic information required for one kind of organism to evolve into a different kind of organism.”

One area often brought up to frighten the public into thinking evolution is essential to their well-being is medical science. Despite the common misconception that modern medicine is built on acceptance of biological evolution, Robert T. Mitchell, MD,19 a Vanderbilt University-trained, board-certified Internal Medicine Specialist and a Fellow of the American College of Physicians, says, “Over the years, I asked many colleagues—including atheists and theistic evolutionists—whether evolutionary understanding contributed to their ability to practice of medicine. They did not know of a single evolutionary contribution.” Furthermore, he adds, "There is no concept or idea in modern evolutionary theory that has any real application to the day to day practice of medicine. In over 20 years of medical practice, I cannot recall even one instance where evolutionary concepts contributed positively to basic medical science or its practical application to my care of sick people.” In a presentation entitled Modern Medicine and Ancient Authority, Dr. Mitchell explains how the oft-cited poster-child of evolution—antibiotic resistance—is an example of natural selection but does not illustrate evolution in the molecules-to-man sense and even how evolutionary thinking has on occasion led to some dangerous medical practices.

To Veto, or Not to Veto, or Option Number Three

Governor Bill Haslam has decided to allow the bill to become law without his signature but not to veto the bill. He has issued the following statement:

I have reviewed the final language of HB 368/SB 893 and assessed the legislation’s impact. I have also evaluated the concerns that have been raised by the bill. I do not believe that this legislation changes the scientific standards that are taught in our schools or the curriculum that is used by our teachers. However, I also don’t believe that it accomplishes anything that isn’t already acceptable in our schools. The bill received strong bipartisan support, passing the House and Senate by a three-to-one margin, but 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.20

The governor, a proponent of educational progress, reasons that teachers already possess the legal right to teach about scientific controversy. His position is analogous to that of James Madison, author of the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Madison—one of the original signers of the Constitution, an expert on constitutional law, and co-author of The Federalist Papers—originally thought the Bill of Rights was unnecessary.21 Madison reasoned that the Constitution already protected all those rights. However, he and others came to understand that the people of the United States were not satisfied that their rights were truly protected unless those rights were officially spelled out. Thus, the first ten amendments to the Constitution did not really “amend” anything in our nation’s founding document but rather affirmed our existing rights. Likewise, the new Teacher Protection Academic Freedom Act does just that. Once the law goes into effect on April 20, teachers can relax and just teach without hesitation, exploring controversial scientific topics with an open, unbiased, scientifically critical eye.

The need for protection

Technically teachers may need no additional protection to teach about these controversies, as Governor Haslam has indicated. Even the ACLU has written that “scientific critiques” of “any explanation of life” (even evolution!) are legally discussable. They write, “In science class, however, they [schools] may present only genuinely scientific critiques of, or evidence for, any explanation of life on earth, but not religious critiques (beliefs unverifiable by scientific methodology).”22 But with ACLU director Hedy Weinberg accusing those who advocate “critical thinking” of “seeking to introduce non-scientific ideas”23 and NCSE’s Eugenie Scott indicating that good science teachers know there is no controversy, one can easily see how terribly intimidated a teacher—allowed to teach scientific controversy but informed that none exists—would feel without this legal blanket of protection.

On a personal note, having lived in Tennessee for much of my adult life, I am glad to see the passage of such a fair law promoting academic freedom for teachers and students.

Is It Enough? What Should Christian Parents and Church Leaders Do?

We applaud the Tennessee legislature’s decision to allow public school instructors to teach without an enforced evolutionary bias. Furthermore, we have never suggested public school teachers should be forced to teach creation. Such a policy, besides violating existing law, would be counter-productive: the creation science position would likely be taught poorly by many evolutionary instructors. We are pleased to see the new law does not promote such an idea.

All that said, when discussing origins (historical science), we hasten to point out that scientific evidence does not speak for itself. Every person has a bias affecting the way he or she views scientific evidence. Therefore, we exhort Christian parents and churches to re-double their efforts to teach not only critical thinking skills but also the truth of the Bible as God’s Word. Students need to be taught that the Bible is consistent with science both at church and at home while learning to critique conventional textbook content at school.

For more information


  4. According to a Fact Sheet about the Teacher Protection Academic Freedom Act prepared by the Family Action of Tennessee, Inc.,
    The bill specifically states that the information discussed must be “scientific” and must relate to scientific theories “required to be taught under the curriculum framework developed by the state board of education.” The bill does not change the existing curriculum frameworks that govern the subject matter covered. Consequently, the amendment makes it clear that the bill is only addressing the curriculum framework adopted by the state board of education. Thus the bill does not allow the teaching of creation science or intelligent design as they are not “existing theories” being “covered” in the courses taught pursuant to our curriculum frameworks. Further, teaching those subjects has been ruled contrary to the “establishment clause.” State law cannot “trump” the U.S. Constitution.
  6. Scopes Trial Transcript, The World’s Most Famous Court Trial: Tennessee Evolution Case. copyright 1925 (reprinted 1990 by Bryan College, Dayton, Tennessee), page 129, 4th day proceedings.
  7. Inherit the Wind
  8. Hunter, G.W. 1914. Hunter’s biology. New York, New York: American Book Company. pages 263-265, quoted in Inherit the Wind.
  9. Inherit the Wind
  19. Dr. Robert T. Mitchell is this author’s husband. We are both graduates of Vanderbilt Medical School, and we both completed our residencies at Vanderbilt University Affiliated Hospitals, he in Internal Medicine and I in Obstetrics and Gynecology. Like my husband, I attained board certification in my specialty and as a Fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology practiced in Gallatin, Tennessee. I agree with his observation that evolutionary concepts were irrelevant to the progress and practice of medicine in my field, even in the area of embryologic development which rightly deals with development of the human being in the present and not unfounded presumptions about an evolutionary past.
  21. See page 364 in Michael Farris’s book, From Tyndale to Madison: How the Death of an English Martyr Led to the American Bill of Rights. Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2007.


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