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The Race to Legislate Creationism

“Darwin’s theory, like all other attempts to explain the origin of life, is thus far merely conjectural.”

Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz, Evolution and Permanence of Type (1874)

It’s time for an update on the progress of evolution. Oklahoma and Tennessee are in a closely matched race to put a new law addressing this contentious issue on the books but who will win cannot be known at this time. Missouri is in third place.   New Hampshire and Indiana hoped to be part of the race but their efforts were sidetracked so they’re out of the running for 2012.

Oklahoma and Tennessee’s legislators’ most recent attacks on evolution started in each state’s legislative session in 2011 and were carried forward into this year’s sessions.  House Bill 1551 that has passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives and is now before the Oklahoma Senate’s Education Committee has the catchy name of the Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act.  (Bills that want creationism taught often include the word “Scientific” in their titles to give added luster to their efforts.) Its sponsors are opposed letting teachers teach science exclusively as it is commonly accepted by those knowledgeable in the field.  The Bill says its purpose is to “create an environment within public . . . schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions. . . and respond appropriately to differences of opinion about controversial issues. . . . Toward this end, teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught.”  One of the scientific theories proponents of the Bill think should be thought is “creationism.”

“Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education” commented on the proposed legislation saying:  “Promoting the notion that there is some scientific controversy [about evolution] is just plain dishonest. . . .” With respect to the bill’s reference to the “weaknesses” of evolution the scientific group describes them as “phony fabrications, invented and promoted by people who don’t like evolution.”  Their comments were seconded by Douglas Mock, a Professor in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oklahoma who said:  “Wrapped in the deceptive language of promoting critical thinking, they aim to get the nose of a malodorous camel (pseudoscience) inside the tent of science. . . . The low scientific literacy of our citizens is a serious concern that’s not helped by adding fake controversies.”  Although it cannot be said with certainty that the bill will get through the senate and be signed by the governor, the odds would seem to be in its favor.  The Oklahoma legislature  was one of the first states in the country to  refer to voters for approval a resolution known as “Save Our State.” It was passed by 70 percent of Oklahoma voters and it forbids Oklahoma courts “from considering or using Sharia law.”  (A temporary injunction was issued against its enforcement within a few days of its approval by voters and on January 11, 2012 the injunction was made permanent by the United States Court of Appeals in Denver.) If Oklahomans can take a stand against Sharia that had never been used in its courts,  it seems like a good bet its Senate and governor will have no trouble taking a stand against evolution that its action suggest has little effect in Oklahoma.

On  March 19th, four days after the Oklahoma House approved HB 1551 and sent it off to the Oklahoma Senate,  the Tennessee Senate passed Senate Bill 893 that is with one minor exception, a virtual carbon copy of the Oklahoma statute. The Tennessee legislation was attacked by the Tennessee Science Teachers Association as being “unnecessary, anti-scientific , and very likely unconstitutional.”  Having passed the Tennessee House it is now before the Republican controlled Senate where its approval seems assured. Tennessee’s governor has not indicated whether or not he will sign the bill.  He told  The Tennessean  that he intended to discuss the legislation with the Tennessee Board of Education before deciding whether or not to sign the Bill.   As he explained to the newspaper:  “That’s why we have a state board of education.”  There are no reports on whether the Oklahoma governor feels the need to consult with any professional or can rely on the proven good sense of the legislators.

Missouri is the other state that is currently contemplating enhancement of its curriculum by introducing alternative theories about how it all happened.  Rick Brattin, a new member of the Missouri House has introduced House Bill 1227.  The Bill would require “intelligent design” to be taught in the schools. Explaining the reason for this legislation, Mr. Brattin told the Kansas City Star that “ the jury is sill out on evolution.” (He did not say to which jury he was referring.)   He expressed dissatisfaction that “our schools only teach that we emerged from primordial ooze.  I think students should get both sides of the issue and get to come to their own conclusions.”  The Bill has been referred to the committee on Elementary and Secondary Education.

Given the history of these kinds of bills and the climate of the states in which they’re being considered, it is not unlikely that all three bills will become law.  When they emerge they will be covered with some kind of ooze.  Probably not primordial, since everyone knows there’s no such thing.

Christopher Brauchli is an attorney living in Boulder, Colorado. He can be e-mailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.

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