by Jeremy Leaming
Tennessee lawmakers appear to be itching for national attention, regardless of how buffoonish their actions. Or more likely the lawmakers that passed measures attacking science education and making a sham of sex education are only interested in pleasing localized interests, such as Christian right activists.
Yes, the rest of the country has taken note of the fatuous measures successfully pushed by state Rep. Jim Gotto and Sen. Bo Watson.
Gotto’s measure, which has been sent to the governor, declares that only abstinence can be discussed in sex education courses, meaning no discussion of so-called “gateway sexual activity,” which according to the bill is “sexual conduct encouraging an individual to engage in non-abstinent behavior.” TPM reports that groups like Planned Parenthood that provide sex education information to the schools “could face $500 fine,” for violating the measure.
Will Gotto’s prudish measure do anything other than draw ridicule? On the national stage, ridicule is likely all Gotto’s measure will garner. But his measure is likely not aimed at curbing unwanted pregnancies or garnering praise from other states. It’s all about pleasing a constituency stuck somewhere in the 1950s. If the representative were truly concerned about teenage pregnancy and birth rates, he would have not have advocated for abstinence-only rhetoric.
Studies overwhelmingly show abstinence-only policy is not sound education. Late last year researchers from the University of Georgia found that states using abstinence-only programs in public schools have far higher teenage pregnancy and birth rates than those states that have comprehensive sex education programs. Kathrine Stranger-Hall, a science professor at the university, said, “Our analysis adds to the overwhelming evidence indicating that abstinence-only education does not reduce teen pregnancy rates.”
The other bill, pushed by Sen. Watson, has already become law, and also harkens to the past. Tennessee has a history of fighting science, but it is not alone in fighting evolution, the cornerstone of biology. Kansas drew nationwide attention in the late 1990s and again in 2005 for its effort to push evolution from the science curriculum.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Bible’s creation story could not be taught alongside evolution in science courses, Christian Right activists have been working year after year to find a way to circumvent the Supreme Court.
The Miami Herald’s Fred Grimm is rightly concerned. “Model bills bounce around one whacked-out legislature to another. If evolution went down in Tennessee in 2012, you can pretty well figure that the Florida Legislature will be rethinking the origins of the species in 2013.”
These whacked-out lawmakers are preoccupied with pleasing their Christian Right constituents, while they should be concerned with creating law that is educationally and constitutionally sound.
Because what will inevitably happen is that parents who are concerned about the law will take action to uphold it. (Or parents who want science, and not religious stories, taught in biology classes, will discover that the law is on their side, and take action.)
The high court in a 1987 case, Edwards v. Aguillard, invalidated a law similar to what Tennessee has just enacted. The Louisiana law, called the “Creationism Act,” sought to discourage the teaching of evolution and promote the teaching of something called creation science, a lame attempt to push religion into a science course. The high court didn’t fall for it, finding that it was “clear from the legislative history that the purpose” of the act was to weaken the state’s science courses, and “advance the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created humankind.”
The Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence is not anti-religious. Voluntary school prayer happens every day in public schools, and is not unconstitutional, if it is truly voluntary. What the high court has found unconstitutional are attempts of state officials, including public school teachers and administrators, to push religion on students.
There are slews of places youngsters can learn Bible stories, such as the home, student groups, and houses of worship. Surely Tennessee has ample churches and parents interested in teaching children tenants of religion. Many of those same parents are also likely to be irked by the attempt of lawmakers to dictate when their children receive religious instruction.
But Rep. Gotto and Sen. Watson are betting they have more constituents who will applaud throwing government support behind promoting wobbly sex education policy and helping far right religious interests.
[image of Tenn. capitol via SeeMidTN.com]