“Four US states are considering new legislation about teaching science in schools, allowing pupils to be taught religious versions of how life on earth developed in what critics say would establish a backdoor way of questioning the theory of evolution,” the Guardian (January 13, 2013) summarizes. The states in question are Colorado (House Bill 13-1089), Missouri (House Bill 179 and House Bill 291), Montana (House Bill 183), and Oklahoma (Senate Bill 758 and House Bill 1674) — to which should be added Arizona (Senate Bill 1213) and Indiana (House Bill 1283), for a grand total of eight bills in six states.
Missouri’s HB 179 and HB 291 target evolution only, with HB 291 requiring, “If scientific theory concerning biological origin is taught in a course of study, biological evolution and biological intelligent design shall be taught. Other scientific theory or theories of origin may be taught.” Arizona’s SB 1213, Colorado’s HB 13-1089, Oklahoma’s HB 1674, and Montana’s HB 183 target, in varying wording, “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” Oklahoma’s SB 758 and Indiana’s HB 1283 mention no specific topics, although evolution is clearly the implicit target.
Except for Missouri’s HB 291, all of the bills share three features, expressed in more or less the same language. First, they are permissive, allowing rather than requiring teachers to help pupils understand the supposed “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” of scientific theories. Second, they are protective, forbidding state and local educational authorities from prohibiting teachers to do so. (Oklahoma’s HB 1674 also protects students from being penalized for subscribing “to a particular position on scientific theories.”) Third, they disavow any intention to promote any religious or antireligious view.
Discussing the bills, NCSE’s Joshua Rosenau commented, “Taken at face value, they sound innocuous and lovely: critical thinking, debate and analysis. It seems so innocent, so pure. But they chose to question only areas that religious conservatives are uncomfortable with. There is a religious agenda here.” Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State concurred, telling the Guardian, “This is just another attempt to bring creationism in through the back door. The only academic freedom they really want to encourage is the freedom to be ignorant.”
Although over forty such bills have been introduced over the last decade, only two have been enacted: in Louisiana in 2008 and in Tennessee in 2012. Barbara Forrest, a philosophy professor at Southeastern Louisiana University (and a member of NCSE’s board of directors) attributed the popularity of such bills to the outcome of the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, in which teaching “intelligent design” in the public schools was found to be unconstitutional. “Creationists never give up. They never do. The language of these bills may be highly sanitized but it is creationist code,” she said.
“The laws can have a direct impact on a state,” the Guardian reported, citing the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology’s boycott of Louisiana (recently rescinded for the city of New Orleans, after the New Orleans City Council and the Orleans Parish School Board both took firm stands against teaching creationism). Zack Kopplin, the young Lousiana activist, argued that similar bills risk the economy and the reputation of states considering them. “It really hurts students. It can be embarrassing to be from a state which has become a laughing stock in this area,” Kopplin remarked.