The successful defense last week of a three-year-old Louisiana law is casting a spotlight on how conservative groups are seeking to circumvent a federal ban on the teaching of creationism in public schools.
The Louisiana Science Education Act, which allows teaching contrary to science on the grounds it promotes critical thinking, is increasingly serving as an inspiration to religious conservatives in other states. Its defenders decry the “censorship” of nonscientific ideas and advocate allowing teachers to teach “both sides” on certain scientific theories.
So far in 2011, similarly worded legislation was introduced in Florida, Texas, Missouri, Kentucky, Oklahoma and New Mexico, but all failed at the committee stage. However, a bill in Tennessee passed the state House in early April and is awaiting a Senate vote in the 2012 session.
In Louisiana, the challenge to the Science Education Act was defeated last Thursday in the Senate Education Committee by a 5-to-1 vote. State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson (D), who authored the bill to repeal the 2008 law, said she received letters of support from more than 40 Nobel Prize-winning scientists.
Senator Peterson told the Associated Press on Tuesday it was “fundamentally embarrassing” for her state to have the law remain on the books, adding that it would further damage Louisiana’s ability to attract top talent in the sciences.
The 2008 law gives elementary and secondary school teachers the right to bring materials into science classrooms as supplements to textbooks on matters “including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning.”
The scientific community has long advocated that allowing anything but science in the teaching of evolution will be intellectually harmful. In an e-mail sent to the Associated Press, Harold Kroto, a Nobel Prize winner for chemistry in 1996, said voting against the repeal creates a situation that “should be likened to requiring Louisiana school texts to include the claim that the Sun goes round the Earth.”
While evolutionary biology is based in the work of Charles Darwin, which shows how humans evolved through natural selection, creationism is rooted in a fundamental reading of Biblical texts that say mankind is the product of a divine maker.
With the law intact, Louisiana is the state that has gone the furthest in approving legislation that opens the door to allowing alternatives to science taught in its schools.
The law’s supporters deny it was written to push religion in the classroom and that its language is very specific about prohibiting doctrine. Instead, they say the law is meant to provide teachers the opportunity “to teach both sides of the equation” regarding certain scientific theories that may need a broader context than what the scientific community insists is fact, says Gene Mills, president of Louisiana Family Forum in Baton Rouge, a conservative non-profit organization that lobbied to keep the law intact.
Schools should 'quit choosing sides'
“We assert you should be able to critically present that evidence and quit choosing sides when it comes to teaching students this controversial subject matter,” Mr. Mills says. “I don’t understand, when it comes to the teaching of critical thinking in an academic environment, why censorship would ever be encouraged.”
Critics say reframing teaching contrary to science as a censorship issue is intended to create a loophole for religious groups to get their agenda before students. Central to their concern is that the law does not require anything of teachers but it is written to embolden those who may feel tempted to voluntarily introduce theories that conflict with scientific teachings.
“It’s a tricky situation because the law is written in a way that it’s really hard to see a good path to a legal challenge. For a teacher who wants to teach creationism, it doesn’t stop them from doing it,” says Josh Rosenau, programs and policy director of the National Center for Science Education, a not-for-profit group in Oakland, Calif., that is active in preserve the teaching of evolution in public school classrooms.
In its three years on the books, the law has never been challenged in court nor has it been the subject of public complaint, according to René Greer, communications director with the Louisiana Department of Education, a result that Mills of the Louisiana Family Forum says affirms its credibility. “There is no evidence this is a problem,” he says.
Ms. Greer says any supplemental material introduced in science classrooms must “meet the standards and policies of city and parish school boards.”
However, it is unclear what, if any, procedures are in place for local administrators to approve the material a teacher may want to introduce to the official curriculum. Which creates the possibility that teachers could restructure the curriculum in any way they see fit and never get caught.
“If a teacher did it on their own, it might go on for years before we ever found out. It would take a very gutsy kid who was alert enough to go home and tell mom and dad,” says Barbara Forrest, a spokeswoman with the Louisiana Coalition for Science, a citizens group mobilized three years ago to fight the law.
Ms. Forrest, who believes “the law was passed to give cover to school boards and teachers who want to teach creationism,” says whistleblowers may find it more onerous to challenge a certain teacher in smaller or more conservative communities where they could face criticism or even a loss of business revenue.