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Tenn. Senate To Get New Chance To Vote On Evolution Measure

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The education committee of the Tennessee Senate last week approved a revised bill that would allow public school districts to fire teachers who teach evolution as fact.

The revision of an earlier bill attempts to clarify what forms or aspects of evolution can and cannot be presented as fact.

The full Senate had sent the previous version of the bill back to the committee earlier this month. The debate over the bill brought national attention, with inevitable comparisons to the state's famous "monkey trial" more than 70 years ago. (See Education Week, March 13, 1996.)

A House version of the bill is stalled in committee pending Senate action.

The theory of evolution, which holds that human beings and other forms of life developed from earlier forms, is controversial in Tennessee and other states where many Christians believe strongly in the literal truth of the biblical account of creation.

The revised Senate bill, which passed the education committee 6-3, still does not meet the objections of some lawmakers.

"My original discomfort was that curriculum was being established through legislation, and nothing has been done to take that concern away," said Sen. Andy Womack, the Democratic chairman of the education committee, who opposes the bill.

Problems Ahead

Despite strong education-committee support, the measure could face intense scrutiny by the Senate finance committee if its passage would require the appropriation of state funds. For example, critics say that the new definitions would require Tennessee to write its own biology textbook.

The bill may face serious legal problems as well. It has a "religious, not a secular purpose," and thus would not pass constitutional muster, State Attorney General Charles W. Burson wrote in a letter to the bill's sponsor, Democratic Sen. Tommy Burks.

Mr. Burson also cited the 1925 trial of John T. Scopes, who was convicted of teaching evolution in a Dayton, Tenn., high school in violation of state law. The state supreme court dismissed the conviction on appeal.

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