A bill protecting the critical analysis of evolution by Louisiana public school teachers outraged committed Darwinists last month when it cruised through both houses of the state legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support. Not a single state senator voted against the Science Education Act and just three of 97 state representatives opposed it-this despite strong public relations campaigns condemning the legislation from several high-profile organizations and individuals.
In the wake of that crushing defeat, the rhetoric of the bill's opponents morphed into threats of costly lawsuits. The Louisiana Coalition for Science called the development an "embarrassment" and warned that it would attract "unflattering national attention." Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said, "Louisiana taxpayers should not have their money squandered on this losing effort." Marjorie Esman, director of the local ACLU chapter, reminded supporters: "We're known for suing school boards."
What's all the fuss about? The Louisiana Science Education Act, which mirrors legislation receiving serious consideration in a handful of other states, protects the right of teachers and administrators "to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning."
In other words, the bill supports a more thorough examination of controversial topics, complete with scientific explanations as to why such areas of study spark controversy. Anticipating suspicions of ulterior motives, the legislation also includes a proscription against its misuse "to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion."
Nevertheless, a New York Times editorial labeled the bill an "assault on Darwin" and compared it to the Louisiana legislature's effort to force biblical creationism into public classrooms in the 1980s. Barbara Forrest, a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University and a founding member of the Louisiana Coalition for Science, called the legislation "a creationist bill written in creationist code language."
When WORLD reached Forrest by phone, she declined to comment. She stated in a press release that the bill's authors are creationists "using the same old tricks, but with new labels."
Darwinists have long sought to dismiss intelligent design (ID), an alternate theory of origins, as repackaged creationism. That strategy proved successful in a landmark court decision against a Dover, Pa., school board in 2005, when a federal judge declared ID inherently religious and its inclusion in the classroom therefore unconstitutional. But categorically dismissing critical analysis of evolution as equally unconstitutional is a far tougher sell-no doubt explaining why numerous states with critical analysis of Darwinism in their official science standards have yet to face legal challenge.
John West of the Discovery Institute, which advocates teaching the evidence for and against Darwinism, says the Louisiana Science Education Act and other similar bills stand on firmer legal ground than the unchallenged proscriptions for critical analysis in several states' science standards: "This bill does nothing to help a teacher promote religion in the classroom," he said. "Why is it unconstitutional for a teacher to point out that mutations are almost always harmful and in just a few cases neutral, which poses a huge problem if you believe all the major innovations in life were driven by a blind process of natural selection and random mutations? That answer is, it's not unconstitutional."
Some Darwinists recognize that. In a column for the American Chronicle, self-described atheist Jason Streitfeld urges support for the bill, which he says promotes "exactly what American students need: encouragement to think critically about controversial topics." Streitfeld further argues that "by reacting negatively to this bill, atheists and supporters of Darwinian evolutionary theory are proving their opponents right: they are acting like reason and the facts are not on their side."
West says the propensity of Darwinists to threaten lawsuits and scare teachers or districts out of critically analyzing evolution stems from an unwillingness to engage on scientific merits and betrays their vulnerability. The Science Education Act, which Democratic Sen. Ben Nevers originally proposed under the title Academic Freedom Act, signals teachers and districts that the state will back them should they choose to undertake a more thorough handling of controversial topics.
Opinion polls show large public majorities in many states favor teaching the evidence for and against Darwinism. Among science teachers, that support dips but remains significant enough to suggest the Louisiana Science Education Act and other bills like it will have a considerable impact on how students encounter evolution.
ACLU director Esman admits that if the law "works as it should, it shouldn't be a problem." But she worries that it may leave room "for things to get sneaked into the classroom that shouldn't be there." That suspicion is shared among many of the bill's detractors, who point out the religious motivation of such supportive groups as the Louisiana Family Forum, an evangelical organization with strong ties to Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council.
But supporters counter that many of the bill's opponents maintain strong atheistic commitments, a correlation given far less publicity or credence in major media reporting. Indeed, much of the public campaigning and calls to arms against the legislation played out on evolutionary biologist and popular science author Richard Dawkins' pro-atheist website. West contends that all such religious motivations for passing new laws are irrelevant in assessing the legality and value of the policy: "Should we repeal all the civil rights laws because lots of American Christians supported them? That's a preposterous argument. The most important thing is what the law actually says."
- Requires the state board of education to support the wishes of a local school board if it requests assistance in helping teachers and administrators promote critical analysis and open scientific discussion of theories related to evolution, origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.
- Requires that such assistance from the state board include guidance for teachers in developing effective methods to help students analyze and critique scientific theories.
- Requires that a teacher first present material in the school system's standard textbook before bringing in additional resources for further analysis and scientific critique.
- Prohibits any promotion of religious doctrine or discrimination for or against religious beliefs, religion, or nonreligion.