As recent state-level legislative attacks on the integrity of science clearly illustrate, advocates for creationism/intelligent design and similar religious viewpoints are now actively pursuing “academic freedom” initiatives across the southern United States. Despite a recent setback in Oklahoma, where a broad cross-section of academic, business, and religious leaders beat back an “academic freedom” initiative, several similar initiatives have surfaced in other state legislatures.

In Oklahoma, the “Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act” (HB 2211) died in the State Senate Rules Committee on 2 April. This legislation, similar to a measure in Texas, would have allowed non-scientific concepts, such as creationism and intelligent design, to be taught as though they represent accepted scientific principles and would have required teachers to accept non-scientific explanations for natural phenomena in class assignments. Science education advocates in Oklahoma reported that the Rules Committee received a large number of letters and calls opposing the measure, including a letter from AIBS (www.aibs.org/position-statements/).

In Louisiana, the Senate Education Committee will consider the “Louisiana Academic Freedom Act” (SB 561) on 17 April. The measure, sponsored by state Senator Ben Nevers (D, 12th district), is considered by education experts to be “stealth” creationism legislation. Nevers has previously sought methods to introduce creationism into the science classroom. The intent of SB 561 is to create questions that do not scientifically exist around issues like evolution and climate change. Language in the bill emphasizes controversy and critical analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of these well-accepted scientific concepts.

The legislation’s language is rooted in the policy passed by the Ouachita Parish School Board in 2006 that protects teachers who want to “teach the controversy” about evolution. The policy was written by an associate of the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF), an organization that continues to solicit other local school districts to adopt the policy. Regular Policy Report readers will also recall that the LFF was the intended recipient of a controversial $100,000 earmark “to develop a plan to promote better science education” by United States Senator David Vitter (R-LA). A coalition of concerned organizations, including AIBS, joined forces to oppose the earmark which Vitter eventually withdrew. http://www.aibs.org/public-policy-reports/20071029.html#004207

In Florida, the “Evolution Academic Freedom Act” (HB 1483, SB 2692) is moving swiftly through the state legislature despite criticism and protests from teachers, scientists, the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and staff for the Florida legislature. These legislative initiatives were introduced in response to the new state science standards approved by the Florida State Board of Education in February that include the term “evolution.” If passed, the legislation would “protect the right of teachers to objectively present scientific information relevant to the full range of scientific views regarding chemical and biological evolution.” Science education advocates argue that the legislation would allow teachers with narrow religious agendas to “teach the controversy” when it comes to evolution, presenting ideas like creationism and “intelligent design” as if they were science. Like other “academic freedom” bills, the proposed Florida legislation would also protect students who provide non-scientific explanations for natural phenomena in class assignments.

Staff with the Florida legislature have raised concerns that the measures address a non-existent problem; in fact, a report to one Senate committee stated, “According to the Department of Education, there has never been a case in Florida where a public school teacher or public school student has claimed that they have been discriminated against based on their science teaching or science course work.”

The measures have been reviewed, amended, and approved by 2 Senate Committees (Education Pre-K-12 Committee; Judiciary Committee) and the House’s School and Learning Council. They now await second readings in both houses.

In response to these developments, the Florida Citizens for Science and a coalition of science organizations have organized a press conference and roundtable discussion today (14 April 2008) to highlight the threats HB 1483 and SB 2692 pose to the science curriculum in Florida’s public schools (http://www.flascience.org/wp/?p=535).

In Missouri, Representative Robert Wayne Cooper (R-District 155) introduced HB 2554, an act “relating to teacher academic freedom to teach scientific evidence regarding evolution.” The legislation is full of similar and suspicious rhetoric used in the other “academic freedom” bills – including an emphasis on the critical analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of evolution. In 2004, state Representative Cooper sponsored HB 911 and HB 1722, unsuccessful legislation that called for equal time for “intelligent design” in Missouri’s schools.

 


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