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On 'Darwin Day,' many Americans beg to differ

The latest tactic by evolution opponents – 'academic freedom' laws – recently scored its first major victory.

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"Quite honestly, there aren't any strengths and weaknesses to evolution in the way they say. It's the hook they use to introduce nonscientific explanations," says Robert Gropp, director of public policy for the American Institute of Biological Sciences in Washington. "You have to give [evolution opponents] credit: They've gotten crafty about arguments they make. 'Academic freedom' sounds very all-American, but the problem is it sets aside the way science is done, the way we teach science."

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Supporters of such legislation, like Oklahoma state Sen. Randy Brogdon (R), who introduced The Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act 10 days ago, wonder how people who claim evolution is iron-clad could object to open debate.

"It befuddles me," Senator Brogdon says. "It's amazing that people who believe in human secularism don't want to have an open discussion.... My gosh, what kind of system do we have if we only teach one set of information, one piece of the puzzle?"

Model legislation is currently being promoted by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based organization that had supported the teaching of "intelligent design," which claims that life is too complex to have simply evolved without the hand of an intelligent designer. The Institute is offering an alternative to Darwin Day that it is calling "Academic Freedom Day." "We're doing sort of a counter to Darwin Day, which has become a sort of quasi-religious celebration," says John West, a senior fellow at the Institute.

Academic freedom arguments echo a long history of defeated attempts to challenge evolution's primacy in the classroom. Calls for equal classroom time for "creation science" gave way to less overtly religious support for "intelligent design." But in 2005, a federal court rejected the teaching of intelligent design in public-school classrooms.

The US District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania concluded its ruling by saying: "We have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents."

"It was a shot across the bow nationally," says Tom Hutton, senior staff attorney for the National School Boards Association. "The case was really noticed by school boards." Merely mentioning intelligent design or religious alternatives to evolution became anathema.