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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tennessee Revisits Evolution Debate

DAYTON, Tennessee -- When the town fathers decided in 1925 to challenge a ban on the teaching of evolution, Frances Gabbert's daddy summoned a young man named Scopes to his store.


The rest, as they say, is history.


Today, some Tennessee lawmakers are looking to repeat history. A proposed ban on the teaching of evolution as "fact'' is now under consideration in the state capitol in Nashville.


The legislation has raised concerns about academic freedom, parental rights and government authority. The debate pits scientists against proponents of a Biblical theory of how the world began; the American Civil Liberties Union against fundamentalist Christians.


The issues are almost the same as those debated by William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow in a steamy, second-floor courtroom 71 years ago in this central Tennessee town. The trial tested the constitutionality of a law that forbade the teaching of anything but a "Divine Creation'' theory. Substitute biology teacher John Scopes volunteered to be the test case.


These days, the evolution issue is symbolic of the legislative influence of religious conservatives. Last month, the Senate supported a resolution urging the posting of the Ten Commandments in homes, businesses, and schools.


Neither Governor Don Lundquist, a Republican, nor the state's top school officials have voiced their opinion of the evolution proposal.


Tennessee's attorney general has ruled both bills unconstitutional.


Gabbert, a retired school teacher, and others say legislators are trying to correct a problem that doesn't exist. The state already mandates the teaching of evolution as "scientific theory.''


"They're trying to stir up something,'' says the 79-year-old widow, whose father helped engineer the convening of the Scopes trial in Dayton.


Not everyone in Gabbert's hometown feels the same way.


Ed Emens, the president of the Dayton Chamber of Commerce, sees nothing wrong with the intent of the bill -- to ensure evolution is taught as a "theory.''


"To my knowledge, it's never been proven,'' says Emens.


The attitude of Emens and others like him illustrate how the evolution bill can still resonate with the public.


Professor Kurt Wise teaches at Bryan College, the evangelical Christian school in Dayton whose site was chosen by its namesake.


Wise is a teacher of future teachers. He also is a creationist.


As a teacher, Wise objects to the punishment aspect of the legislation -- a teacher could be dismissed for teaching evolution as a "fact.''


As a creationist, Wise supports efforts to develop a teaching curricula for the Biblical version of the world's beginnings. "What would benefit us all would be to move toward something our Founding Fathers wanted -- a free exchange of ideas,'' says Wise.


But Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, views the bills as attempts by the religious right to "impose their particular religious viewpoints on Tennesseans.''


Weinberg said legislators asked her, "Are you asking me to vote against the Ten Commandments?''


She replied: "I'm asking you to vote for the Ten Commandments and religious freedom by voting against the bill. Government should not be in the business of telling individuals to whom to pray, when to pray and if to pray.''