State Legislators Seek Bills to Allow Questioning of Evolution Theory in Schools

The debate over evolution is evolving. Although federal courts have banned teaching "creation theory" or "intelligent design theory" in public schools, legislators in several states are seeking new ways to allow teachers to cast doubt on the theory of evolution.

The Florida House of Representatives passed a bill this week that will require schools to teach "critical analysis" of evolution.

On Tuesday Michigan introduced a similar "academic freedom" bill. Louisiana, Alabama and Missouri also have legislation under debate, although no state has adopted a law yet.

Opponents say these bills that allow the questioning of evolution are a smokescreen for teaching creationism or intelligent design.

Creation theory is the religious belief that God created all life. Intelligent design is the theory that some features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an "intelligent cause." While advocates contend intelligent design is a scientific theory, a federal judge in 2005 ruled that the theory is religious in nature and it is unconstitutional to teach it in public schools.

In Florida, Rep. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, who sponsored the House bill, insists it would "not permit, nor authorize, nor allow the teaching of creationism or intelligent design" or any other religious theory.

But the bill would offer supplementary scientific information and encourage teachers and students to engage in discussion that criticizes evolution.

"I do not expect teachers to go into the classrooms and present a bizarre array of theories," Hays told "The theory of evolution, which most practicing biologists are teaching today, is inadequate in explaining our existence in the eyes of some scientists. Teachers need to be able to bring their students up to date."

The state already has a measure that protects teachers who challenge evolution, but the Florida Senate has stopped short of ratifying the House's proposed bill requiring it be taught.

But critics of these "academic freedom" measures say they are backdoor entries to teaching creationism.

"These anti-evolution bills are really the creationism du jour, an end run around the legal decisions that have banned the outright teaching of creationism," said Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif.

Scott said these bills tap into American cultural values of free speech and equality, but with the intended result of allowing the students themselves to "flip over to this dichotomous thinking that God must have created us."

John West, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute — a Seattle-based think tank that supports intelligent design and offered language that most state legislatures have used to pattern their bills — said the measure merely encourages discussion, not outright teaching, of intelligent design.

"We oppose intelligent design mandates," West said. "The text of both (Florida) bills make very clear that this isn't protecting the right to give religious critiques."

He added that the Discovery Institute opposes teaching creationism in the classroom and supported the 2005 ruling by a federal judge in Pennsylvania that banned a policy requiring ninth grade science teachers in Dover, Pa., to read a statement acknowledging the existence of intelligent design theory before teaching evolution.

Rep. John Moolenaar of Midland, Mich., who sponsored his state's academic freedom bill and was a science major in college, said it's only fair that students and teachers question, for example, phenomena like the sudden appearance of diverse species, not explained by theories of gradual progression.

"Educators should have the freedom to bring in the best scientific information to facilitate those discussions," Moolenaar said. "We’re trying to get students to ask the question: What scientific evidence exists for what theories?"

But Scott said applying a "fairness" argument to science teaching is "wrong-headed," and that such legislation is a disservice to Florida and the country's science and biotechnology industry.

"Any student shaky on this subject can kiss those careers goodbye," she said.

Dean Falk, Chairwoman of Florida State University's Department of Anthropology, agreed. "I was totally taken aback. Florida already has a reputation for being very conservative when it comes to education and teaching science. This underscores that, so I think it's an embarrassment," she said.

Earlier this week, the Louisiana Senate passed a bill allowing local school boards to approve supplementary materials to be added to the science curriculum. Some teachers in the state are using 7-year-old textbooks.

In similar moves, the Alabama State Senate passed a non-harassment bill for teachers expressing critiques of evolution, and Missouri's House of Representatives is expected to vote next week on a bill that would allow for intelligent design to be taught as a hypothesis.

Michigan's bill, introduced Tuesday night, protects teachers and students from being penalized for discussing challenges to traditional scientific theories on such topics as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, human impact on climate change and human cloning.

The hot button issue of course is how far to push the scientific debate and whether proposed legislation is really going to be limited to just scientific discussions.