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Anti-science bills are popping up like daisies after a spring shower. Five bills in four states have been introduced with the opening of state legislatures across the United States. All of the bills are aimed at undermining the teaching of biology and physical science — specifically, evolution and climate change — in public schools. Oklahoma has two bills in the hopper, Colorado, Missouri and Montana have one each.
Bills like these pop up a lot, says evolutionary biologist Josh Rosenau, who works on policy issues for the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). But in recent years the language of the bills has been converging, suggesting that it is essentially the same bill being re-introduced around the country, rather than something original to each state.
"It is almost identical language in all of the bills," said Rosenau. "It's a package of bills that we've been tracking since the 2004 'Academic Freedom' bill." That bill, which was passed into law, was based on language generated by the Discovery Institute, which has long pushed for the inclusion of biblical creationism and pseudo-scientific "intelligent design" into science classes in public schools.
The academic freedom approach sounds good because it seems to protect students and teachers from being expelled if they want to argue about creationism, deny climate science, or refer to stem cell research in the classroom. The only catch, said Rosenau, is that it's a solution in search of a problem.
"No one has been expelled," said Rosenau.
On the other hand the bills would create problems for administrators and teachers, said Eric Feaver, president of the Montana Education Association and the Montana Federation of Teachers.
“It affects the supervisors of the schools,” said Feaver, because they would not be able to stop the teaching of religion disguised as science. “Teachers who teach creationism would be immune to punishment.” That basically undermines school supervisors, he said.
In Montana, HB 183 reflects the same "academic freedom" approach, and was introduced by newly sworn-in legislator Clayton Fiscus, a realtor and high school graduate.
“We believe the bill is, on its face, unconstitutional,” said Feaver, who will be present with science education advocates for the bill's first hearing on Jan. 25. We are going to rise in opposition.”
A federal court ruled in 2005 that the teaching of intelligent design was in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Since that time, efforts to undermine public school science have been forced to attempt the "academic freedom" subterfuge, explained Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the NCSE.
Most of these new bills will likely die early in legislative sessions, explained Rosenau, because they are rarely considered of great importance or worth the very vocal opposition they engender.