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Posted at 01:00 PM ET, 04/19/2012

How state anti-evolution laws evolved

This was written by Simon Maloy, a research fellow at Media Matters for America, and published on the Media Matters for America website. Maloy is writing about a new law in Tennessee, which I recently wrote about here, that could undermine the teaching of accepted scientific thought in areas including evolution and climate change. He refers in the following post to the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that promotes creationist theory and, on its website, says it is “dedicated to the reinvigoration of traditional Western principles and institutions and the worldview from which they issued.”

By Simon Maloy

To listen to the Discovery Institute, Tennessee's “academic freedom” law, which is based on Discovery Institute model legislation, has nothing to do with creationism or religion. “The bill includes a clear statement that it only applies to teaching science and does not protect teaching religion,” wrote Casey Luskin, research coordinator at the institute's Center for Science and Culture, on March 20. “Don't expect that to satisfy critics, who will predictably ignore the actual language of the bill and falsely claim it would introduce religion in the classroom.”

It's difficult to take these denials seriously, though, given that the language of the model bill and its stated intention of promoting “academic freedom” trace their pedigrees through a series of court battles spanning several decades of creationist efforts to inject religion into public school science classes. The model bill is designed to obviate the legal hurdles raised by previous successful challenges to creationism in the classroom.

The Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture promotes research into “intelligent design” (ID), which it defines as the theory that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.” While they are careful to not use explicitly religious language when discussing ID, it is impossible to see the phrase “intelligent cause” and not think “God,” or “Creationism.” The teaching of creationism in public schools has been banned ever since Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1987. Intelligent design is essentially an attempt to dress up the core tenets of creationism as science in order to sneak it back into the classroom.

That, at least, was the position of Judge John E. Jones of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania when he issued his December 20, 2005, ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District , in which parents of public school children in Dover, Pennsylvania sued the school board for requiring that ID be taught alongside Darwinian evolution in science classes. In that ruling, Jones methodically dismantled that case for teaching ID as science, writing: "The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory."

Reacting to the ruling, the Discovery Institute blasted Jones as "an activist federal judge" (Jones was appointed by George W. Bush) and vowed to continue pushing intelligent design and the idea that "students should learn about both the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwin's theory of evolution."

But with legal precedent on the books equating intelligent design to creationism, the Discovery Institute faced a daunting problem: School boards and state legislatures would not be willing to take up intelligent design only to get smacked down by the courts. So they adapted their strategy to the new environment. Instead of focusing on the promotion of intelligent design, they shifted to undermining support for evolution.

Following the Dover setback, the Discovery Institute made the pursuit of “academic freedom” their focus. “We have entered a new front in the debate over intelligent design — the need to protect academic freedom, particularly on college campuses,” declared the winter 2006 edition of the institute's newsletter, Views. Shortly after Dover, the Discovery Institute published a critique of the ruling that called for “administrative guidelines, even legislative enactments” to “provide clearer protection for the rights of students and teachers to critically analyze Darwin's theory in the classroom.”

In February 2008, the Center for Science and Culture introduced the “Academic Freedom Petition,” inviting visitors to “support the rights of teachers and students to learn all about evolution.” Along with the petition, the institute began publicizing their model legislation: “A sample academic freedom bill that would protect the rights of teachers and students to study the full range of scientific views on Darwinian evolution.” And, as the Discovery Institute is eager to point out, the model bill contains a religious disclaimer: “nothing in this act shall be construed as promoting any religious doctrine.”

The “academic freedom” of public school teachers has actually long been a cause for the Discovery Institute and other anti-Darwin conservatives, to the extent that “academic freedom” is defined as the ability to teach unscientific alternatives to Darwinian evolution. And they've gone to court many times to defend it:

* In 1978, then law-student Wendell Bird drafted a legal strategy for introducing creationism into public school classrooms as a matter of “academic freedom.” Bird's paper would form the basis for “balanced treatment” bills passed in Louisiana and Arkansas in the early 1980s, and Bird himself would later (unsuccessfully) defend the Louisiana law before the Supreme Court.

* In 1981, Louisiana passed a law imposing “balanced treatment for creation-science and evolution-science” in public school classrooms. The stated purpose of the bill was “protecting academic freedom,” and mandated “providing whatever information and instruction in both creation and evolution models the classroom teacher determines is necessary and appropriate to provide insight into both theories.” Six years later, in Edwards v. Aguillard , the Supreme Court threw the law out as unconstitutional, effectively barring creationism from public school science classes. More to the point, the court rejected the “academic freedom” argument, ruling that “the Act does not serve to protect academic freedom, but has the distinctly different purpose of discrediting” evolution.

* In 2001, the Minnesota Court Of Appeals ruled on a case in which science teacher Rodney LeVake sued his school board after they reassigned him from teaching biology when he made known that he wished to teach the “difficulties and inconsistencies” of Darwinian evolution. LeVake claimed that his “academic freedom” had been infringed upon. The court disagreed, ruling that his “proposed method of teaching evolution is in direct conflict with respondents' curriculum requirements,” and “the established curriculum and LeVake's responsibility as a public school teacher to teach evolution in the manner prescribed by the curriculum overrides his First Amendment rights as a private citizen.”

* In the 2005 Dover case, the Discovery Institute maintained that while they did not endorse the mandated teaching of intelligent design, they nonetheless supported the Dover school board and the cause of “academic freedom.” As a September 2005 statement elucidating the institute's position on the trial put it: “The ACLU is betraying the principle of academic freedom by seeking a government-imposed gag-order on teachers and students that would prevent even voluntary discussions of intelligent design in the science classroom. All Americans who cherish free speech should reject the ACLU's effort to decide the debate over evolution through court orders rather than the free marketplace of ideas.”

The takeaway from these “academic freedom” cases is that the responsibility to teach science trumps the teachers' right to express their disagreements with evolutionary theory. The Discovery Institute aims to change that.

Given the historical trajectory of the push for “academic freedom” — the definition of which has shifted from “equal time” for creationism to intelligent design to evolution's “strengths and weaknesses” — it strains credulity to argue, as the Discovery Institute does, that the model bill is not geared towards introducing intelligent design or other faith-based theories into public school curricula.

After all, the purpose of the Center For Science and Culture is to evangelize intelligent design, which can only succeed if evolutionary theory is torn down. The organization's governing goals, as laid out in their controversial “Wedge” document leaked in the late 1990s, reflect that duality of purpose. The first goal is to “defeat scientific materialism” i.e. Darwinian theory “and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies;” the second is “to replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.”

The language of model bill itself harkens back to the previous legislative attempts to promote creationism in the classroom. The model bill's religious disclaimer is of the type first proposed by Bird's 1978 legal strategy, which counseled that the “treatment of either the theory of evolution or the theory of scientific creationism must be limited to scientific evidences and must not include religious doctrine.” [emphasis added] Arkansas passed a law in 1981 similar to Louisiana's “balanced treatment” act that contained such a disclaimer: “This Act does not require or permit instruction in any religious doctrine or materials.” In striking down the law, the District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas said it was "impossible" to comply with the statute: “There is no way teachers can teach the Genesis account of creation in a secular manner.”

The idea that the model bill has nothing to do with intelligent design turns downright farcical when you consider that the public debut of the legislation was timed to coincide with the promotion of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed , a pro-intelligent design documentary narrated by actor Ben Stein. Both the film and the legislation became quickly embroiled in an “academic freedom” fight in Florida. On March 12, 2008, the Discovery Institute's Luskin held a press conference in Tallahassee with Stein and the sponsors of Florida's Academic Freedom Act, which was based on the Discovery Institute's model legislation. Following the press conference, the sponsors of the Florida bill attended a private screening of Expelled . (The bill passed both houses of the legislature, but died when lawmakers failed to reconcile the House and Senate versions before the legislative session ended.)

Later in 2008, Louisiana took up their own “academic freedom” bill, also based on the Discovery Institute's model. The driving force behind that bill was the Louisiana Family Forum (LAFF), a conservative Christian group that promotes creationism and “origins science.” The primary sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Ben Nevers, a Democrat, told the Hammond Daily Star in April 2008 that the LAFF proposed the bill to him because “they believe that scientific data related to creationism should be discussed when dealing with Darwin's theory. This would allow the discussion of scientific facts.” (The Louisiana bill passed and was signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2008.)

In Tennessee, the Discovery Institute-inspired bill was pushed primarily by the Family Action Council of Tennessee, whose president, David Fowler, wrote an op-ed for the Chattanoogan heaping praise on intelligent design, the legislation, and the freedom of teachers to help
“students evaluate all the evidence on the subject.”

So what we have in the Discovery Institute's model bill is a piece of legislation that is crafted from the stripped-down bones of dead pro-creationist laws, that attacks evolutionary theory by promoting the creationist movement's mantra of “academic freedom,” that was debuted in conjunction with a piece of pro-intelligent design propaganda, and that is supported by creationist state groups who believe it will safely reintroduce unscientific religious dogma into public school science classes.

But it has nothing to do with religion. Nothing at all.

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