News of the Week

States Push Academic Freedom Bills

Science  09 May 2008:
Vol. 320, Issue 5877, pp. 731a
DOI: 10.1126/science.320.5877.731a
Face-to-face.

Ben Stein has helped intelligent design proponents in their efforts to dethrone Darwin.

CREDIT: 2008 PREMISE MEDIA CORP.

If creationism is a mutating virus, as many educators believe, then its latest guise is legislation to protect “academic freedom.”

Politicians in five U.S. states are pushing bills to enable educators to teach alternatives to evolution by protecting their “right” to discuss with students the idea of intelligent design (ID). Last week, scientists in Florida heaved a sigh of relief when the state legislature adjourned without reconciling differing versions of a bill seen as promoting ID. Similar legislation appears to have a good chance of passing in Louisiana, however, and is gathering steam in Missouri. Bills have also been introduced in Alabama and Michigan.

The language in the bills is modeled on a statute drafted by the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington, a prominent ID think tank. “They provide a permission slip for teachers to teach creationism—as long as it's called ‘science,’” says Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California. “If any one of them passes, it is going to be very encouraging to creationists in other states.” Backers are hoping for a lift from a current movie with actor Ben Stein, called Expelled, that accuses scientists of silencing those who question evolutionary theory.

In Florida, ID supporters lobbied for a bill that would protect teachers from being “disciplined, denied tenure, terminated, or otherwise discriminated against for objectively presenting scientific views regarding biological or chemical evolution.” On 23 April, the state Senate passed it by a vote of 21 to 17. But the House sponsor, D. Alan Hays, replaced the Senate language with a single line that instead would require public schools to provide “a thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution.” Hays's legislative assistant, Tiffany Rousseau, told Science that the change was made due to fears that conferring protection upon teachers “might be unconstitutional.”

On 28 April, the House voted 71-43 in favor of Hays's legislation. But attempts at reconciliation failed. Senator Ronda Storms, who sponsored the bill, told the Florida Baptist Witness that “the House vehicle [had] veered off of the sure path to our destination.”

In Louisiana, state senators voted unanimously that the state school board should promote “open and objective discussion of scientific theories … including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” A House committee was expected to take up the measure this week.

“It has been difficult to rally opposition,” says Barbara Forrest, a philosopher at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. Forrest and other educators have formed the Louisiana Coalition for Science in a bid to block the legislation. Backers of the bill include the conservative Louisiana Family Forum.

Groups opposed to teaching creationism are likely to challenge any proposal that becomes law. But they would prefer to defeat the movement earlier. “One can reasonably conclude that the freedom [these bills] are trying to empower teachers with is to present the same material that was found unconstitutional in the Dover case, namely intelligent design,” says Eric Rothschild, who represented the plaintiffs in their suit against the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board (Science, 6 January 2006, p. 34). But mounting a judicial challenge could be a costly and time-consuming process, Rothschild warns: “It's always better for bad laws to be avoided by legislators themselves.”

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