Virginia science bill sent to courts subcommittee

A bill that would encourage Virginia students to explore controversial scientific topics was referred Thursday to a House committee for Courts and Justice, where any constitutional concerns can be analyzed.

The bill, which was sponsored by Del. Richard P. Bell (R-Staunton), has met opposition from science teachers and other advocates for the separation of church and state who say it would invite challenges to mainstream scientific theories, including evolution and climate change.

About 10 people spoke in opposition to the bill at the House subcommittee for Elementary and Secondary Education Thursday afternoon, said Seth Heald, vice chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter and a graduate student studying energy policy and climate who attended the meeting.

It was a “dramatic” scene, he said, with some opponents invoking the 1925 Scopes trial, in which a public school teacher was accused of breaking the law by teaching about evolution.

Historic efforts to ban the instruction of evolution in public schools or teach biblical creationism have been struck down by the Supreme Court.

The language of the Virginia bill is similar to bills passed in Tennessee and Louisiana. It’s very broad and states its provisions are not intended to promote or discriminate against any religion. The Virginia bill also does not single out scientific “controversies.”

“We have not had a court case on these statutes,” said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, which has tracked major cases about creationism and evolution, and opposes the bill.

“It’s not clear they would not survive constitutional scrutiny,” he said.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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