Thursday, June 12, 2008

A battle over science education could soon spill into the courts in Louisiana, where looming legislation would allow teachers to bring up scientific criticisms of evolution, global warming and other hot-button topics.

The state House approved the bill Wednesday on a 94-3 vote. Because the Senate already approved a near-identical measure, supporters expect the upper chamber to pass this bill also.

A spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal would not say whether he will sign the bill, saying only that he will review it when it gets to his desk.

“It’s not about a certain viewpoint,” said supporter Jason Stern, Vice President of the Louisiana Family Forum, a conservative group pushing the bill. “It’s allowing [teachers] to teach the controversy. It’s an academic freedom issue.”

Opponents, however, say it’s a thinly veiled attempt to allow into science class “intelligent design,” which they denounce as disguised religion and warn of lawsuits if the bill becomes law.

“If this bill passes, and religious materials are brought into Louisiana public schools as a result, we will go to court to seek justice for the state’s children,” Americans United for Separation of Church and State Executive Director Barry Lynn said earlier this week. “The federal courts have repeatedly struck down every scheme designed to inject religious doctrines into public school science classes. These so-called ‘academic freedom´ bills are just the latest maneuver to try to get around those rulings.”

Similar bills allowing teachers to criticize evolutionary theories have been introduced in Michigan, Missouri, Florida, Alabama and South Carolina, though some of them have died for the year as legislatures adjourned. The Discovery Institute, a think tank in Seattle that promotes the “intelligent design” theory, has helped craft many of the bills - a fact that has raised alarm among the bill’s opponents.

The Louisiana bill would require the state board of education - at the request of a city, parish or local school board - to “allow and assist” schools to foster an environment that “promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis and open and objective discussion of scientific theories” such as evolution, global warming and human cloning.

Under the bill, a teacher would still teach the material in the standard textbook but also could use “supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials.” The state board of education would have veto power over these materials, supporters of the bill said.

Supporters also noted the bill clearly states it can’t be used to promote any “religious doctrine.”

Mr. Stern said a survey of Louisiana public school science teachers a few years ago showed that many felt uncomfortable teaching evolution, global warming and other topics that “tend to be taught from only one perspective.” He said the bill’s aim isn’t to inject “intelligent design,” but to let teachers freely present the strengths and weaknesses of evolution and other topics, he said.

John West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, said teachers have been harassed and “shut down” when they’ve tried to do this. He added that Ouachita Parishhas had a policy similar to the bill for a few years but opposition groups haven’t sued “because it’s constitutional and they know it.”

But Barbara Forest, a member of Americans United’s board who is fighting the bill through the Louisiana Coalition for Science, said the bill is “open ended” in what it would allow, and that it’s “very clear” the goal is “to get intelligent design into the classroom.”

She said Discovery Institute officials realized courts weren’t sympathetic to their cause so they’re trying this “academic freedom” tactic.

“What you’re seeing in Louisiana right now is the next phase of their strategy,” she said.

The Supreme Court in 1987 struck down a Louisiana law that required “creation science” to be taught whenever evolution was, ruling that it advanced “a religious doctrine” and was unconstitutional. A federal district court in 2005 struck down a Dover, Pa., school board policy that required the teaching of intelligent design, ruling that it, too, is linked to religion.

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