In a statement, Gov. Bill Haslam says he will not sign a controversial bill ensuring that teachers are permitted to teach "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses" of theories such as evolution and climate change. Instead, citing the large margin by which the bill passed both chambers, he said he will allow the bill to become law without his signature.
This move is unprecedented for Haslam. In the last week, Haslam has received pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and a petition bearing the signature of 3,200 Tennesseeans urging him to veto the bill.
The governor's statement in full, after the jump:
“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.”
UPDATE: Just before starting one of her classes at Vanderbilt University, earth and environmental science professor Dr. Larisa DeSantis — who wrote a letter urging Haslam to veto the legislation last week — gave Pith her reaction to the governor's decision.
"We do regret that he isn’t going to veto the bill," she said, "despite all of our efforts and despite all of the support by teachers, national teachers organizations, professional society of scientists and also the petition which is over 6,000 individuals, the vast majority from Tennessee. It is disappointing.”
Asked if she gives Haslam any credit for declining to put his name on the legislation she said, in short, no.
“We needed him to veto it," she said. "If he had vetoed this piece of legislation it would not have become law. It looks like he’s quoted as saying something to the effect of ‘I also don’t believe it accomplishes anything that isn’t already acceptable in our schools.’ Well if that’s the case, then why not veto it? If that’s his perception of this piece of legislation. It’s really going to create problems."
What problems? She continues:
"It’s going to create problems for our students in the state of Tennessee and it’s going to create problems for the state of Tennessee as a whole. By allowing for these so-called ‘weaknesses’ of evolution, ‘weaknesses’ of climate change to be taught in the school system. I really do worry that it’s going to become sort of the laughing stock in regards to science education. Students who are applying to colleges, who were educated in the state of Tennessee, are people going to look at Tennessee and think that we don’t have quality science education? I think it really will become an issue," she said.
As for the governor's contention that the legislation changes nothing about the state's curriculum or scientific standards, DeSantis says the effect is in filling class time with subjects that don't belong.
"Well, right now teachers are hard pressed to teach all of the standards that are in the curriculum," she said. "I know this because my husband is a high school teacher in the public schools here in Tennessee. And it is very difficult to accomplish and to get through all of those standards. So what this actually does is it permits and allows teachers to now talk about scientific weaknesses that aren’t actually science, that don’t exist. So it’s going to allow less time to actually cover sound science."
Caught in the hallway by several reporters, bill sponsor Sen. Bo Watson said he holds no grudge against the governor and defended the legislation against critics' claims that the bill opens the door for creationism and such.
"Well, I just disagree with their whole argument," he said. "I think those are all red herrings. Look, we have a curriculum that teachers are going to follow. We have teachers now very accountable to their students' performance on tests. And so teachers are going to focus on the material that they know is going to be examined on the test."
He continued, "So when these kind of issues come up, I think teachers may speak to them and, I hope, feel more comfortable speaking to them. But they're going to say 'Look, we have to get on to the material that's required.' I think there's been a lot of conjecture about this legislation that's simply inaccurate and misleading."
Watson also claims the final language, being added into the state's code, do not include the various "Whereas" clauses, where evolution and climate change are referenced. The aim, he says, is simply to encourage critical thinking instead of rote memorization of facts.
While his decision to withhold his signature, and let the bill pass into law anyway, is not exactly a picture of political courage, Haslam was right when he noted earlier this week that the legislature could easily have their way. In Tennessee, only a simple majority is needed to overturn a veto and despite the hubbub, this bill passed with relatively little opposition.
Afternoon, GOP Chairman Chris Devaney took to Twitter to reiterate that point and respond to an earlier tweet from the TNDP's official Twitter account mocking Haslam's decision.
"If [the Tennessee Democratic Party] has issues w/ SB839, why don't they criticize Dems who supported it, like Lowe Finney?" he tweeted.