An “academic freedom” bill that opponents say could open the door to teaching creationism in public schools sailed through Louisiana’s House of Representatives last week, buoyed by testimony in favor of the legislation by biologists from Baptist-affiliated Louisiana College.
The Louisiana Science Education Act passed in the House last Wednesday by a vote of 94-3. It now moves to the Senate, which previously passed the bill 35-0 but must reconsider it because the House adopted a minor amendment.
The bill allows teachers to promote “critical thinking” about scientific theories “including but not limited to evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning.” Critics say its intent is to pressure schools to inject religion into science classes by introducing Bible-based arguments against scientific consensus.
Sen. Ben Nevers, a Democrat from Bogalusa, said the suggestion for the bill came from the Louisiana Family Forum, a conservative Christian organization with ties to Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council. It also has backing from the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that supports the teaching of Intelligent Design.
Looking for supporters, Nevers turned to Louisiana College, a liberal-arts school in Pineville connected to the Louisiana Baptist Convention.
Louisiana College President Joe Aguillard said in a hearing last month that he supports “more academic freedom in the science classroom.”
“I am convinced that teaching young people to become excellent scientists must come from objective teaching in an environment of true academic freedom,” said Aguillard, a former education professor elected to lead Louisiana College in 2005.
Wade Warren, associate professor of biology and assistant dean at Louisiana College, described getting in trouble as a graduate student at Texas A&M for planning a lab discussion about strengths and weaknesses of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
“The state of science today is very difficult for an individual who does not follow the Gospel of Darwin,” Warren said in a podcast interview with the Discovery Institute prior to his testimony.
Brenda Peirson, associate professor of biochemistry at Louisiana College, also backed the bill.
“I have scientific doubts about the accuracy of the Darwinian evolutionary model to explain the origins of many complex biochemical features of the cell,” she said. Peirson said Darwin wrote 100 years before the discovery of DNA, and that observations he made at the organic level do not hold up at the cellular and sub-cellular levels.
“The bottom line is this: science is complicated, often controversial but oh so interesting,” she said. “We need to be academically honest when discussing scientific theories and searching for scientific truth. Teachers deserve the freedom to present the evidence for controversial theories and also the evidence against them.”
Also testifying on behalf of the bill was Carolyn Crocker, CEO of the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness Center, who appeared in Ben Stein’s pro-Intelligent Design documentary, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.”
The Louisiana Science Education Act would allow schools to use “supplemental textbooks” to critique scientific theories. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State said those materials would likely be anti-evolution books, DVDs and other items produced by fundamentalist Christian ministries. AU predicted the act would spark lawsuits.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science said the bill appeared to be designed to “insert religious or unscientific views into science classrooms.”
“The bill implies that particular theories are controversial among scientists, including evolution, but there is virtually no controversy about evolution among the overwhelming majority of researchers,” Alan Lesher, the group’s executive director, said in a letter to House Speaker Jim Tucker.
“The science of evolution underpins all of modem biology and is supported by tens of thousands of scientific studies in fields that include cosmology, geology, paleontology, genetics and other biological specialties,” Lesher said. “It informs scientific research in a broad range of fields such as agriculture and medicine, work that has an important impact on our everyday lives.”
Barbara Forrest, a Southeastern University philosophy professor and co-author of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, formed the Louisiana Coalition for Science to “stand up for sound science in Louisiana.”
“The legislature shouldn’t be allowing creationists to undermine Louisiana public schools,” Forrest said in a press release. “The House of Representatives just gave the Religious Right a green light to use other people’s children for their own agenda.”
Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, said about the bill, “Christian fundamentalists are trying to shoehorn creationism into classrooms under the core American value of freedom.”
“Jesus called for the practice of discernment ”discernment means recognizing that academic goals aren’t always academic goals, freedom isn’t always freedom and what Christians say isn’t always what they mean,” said Parham. “Discernment means doing the right thing for public education the right way for the common good in a pluralistic society, not shoehorning creationism into public classrooms.”
Louisiana is one of six states this year to consider legislation designed to protect teachers who teach both the strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory. Bills in Missouri, South Carolina, Alabama and Florida died before reaching the full legislature. Louisiana is the only state so far to come close to passage.
Gov. Bobby Jindal indicated Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that he would support the measure.
“I personally think that the life, human life and the world we live in wasn’t created accidentally,” Jindal said. “I do think that there’s a creator. I’m a Christian. I do think that God played a role in creating not only earth, but mankind. Now, the way that he did it, I’d certainly want my kids to be exposed to the very best science.”
“I don’t want any facts or theories or explanations to be withheld from them because of political correctness,” Jindal said. “The way we’re going to have smart, intelligent kids is exposing them to the very best science and let them not only decide, but also let them contribute to that body of knowledge. That’s what makes the scientific process so exciting. You get to go there and find facts and data and test what’s come before you and challenge those theories.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Academic Freedom Sometimes Neither Academic nor Freedom