(RNS) A new documentary examines the evolving battle over teaching evolution in American classrooms as tactics have shifted from a hard-nosed debate to a more subtle fight in the name of “academic freedom.”
The film, “No Dinosaurs in Heaven,” follows Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, down the Colorado River as she refutes creationist theories that the Grand Canyon is only a few thousand years old and shows evidence of the biblical flood.

It also charts the story of its director, Greta Schiller, as she studies to become a science teacher and is assigned a biology professor who refuses to teach evolution because of his religious beliefs.

“I made the film to convey three major ideas,” Schiller said. The most important, she said, is “that science is a way to understand the natural world and is not inherently in conflict with a belief in God.”

Americans have grappled with science standards since the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, which put a Tennessee teacher on trial for teaching evolution. The debate was revived in the 1990s with the rise of “intelligent design,” or ID, the idea that the universe shows evidence of a master designer.

Many thought ID was discredited in a 2005 court case, Kitzmiller v. Dover, the first challenge to teaching ID in public schools, when a Pennsylvania judge ruled ID is a form of religious creationism and therefore cannot be taught in public schools.

But evolution proponents say creationists have returned to the trenches to refine their attack. Where they once asked teachers to “teach the controversy”—one that most scientists insist does not exist—they now promote their ideas in the interest of “academic freedom.”

“Now they are not talking about balancing evolution with a religious idea, but about balancing evolution with evidence against evolution,” Scott said. “Of course, scientists are unaware of any evidence against evolution. It seems only the creationists who can come up with a list.”

Scott points to several “battleground states” where evolution is not the classroom standard:

—Kentucky law now requires educators teach “the theory of creation as presented in the Bible” and “read such passages in the Bible as are deemed necessary for instruction on the theory of creation.”

—The Tennessee House passed a bill earlier this year that describes evolution and global warming as “controversial”; the state Senate will consider the issue in 2012.

—In 2008, Louisiana enacted the Louisiana Science Education Act, which described evolution and global warming as “controversial” and permitted the use of supplemental materials to teach alternative theories. It was the subject of an unsuccessful repeal effort earlier this year.

—Texas, which has a long history of turmoil over its curriculum standards, is debating whether to include supplementary materials on theories other than evolution.

—In New Hampshire, some legislators have said they will introduce bills requiring the teaching of evolution “as a theory” and the teaching of ID in 2012.

Such laws seem to reflect Americans’ thinking on the subject. A recent poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Service found that 38 percent of Americans believe “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since creation.” In a recent CNN poll, more than 40 percent of respondents said evolution was probably or definitely false.

“Yup, we have a lot of work to do,” Scott said.

In Britain, too, the battle over science education standards is heating up. A group of scientists, including the prominent biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins, has called for a law prohibiting the teaching of creationism in public schools.

“No Dinosaurs in Heaven” premieres in New York on Oct. 25 at the New York Academy of Sciences, where Scott will also speak. The film is part of a “Celebrate Science” campaign initiated by the film’s producers, Jezebel Films, which plans to screen it on college campuses and community centers across the country.

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