Sneaking God Into Science Classes: The Rise Of The ‘Academic Freedom’ Bill February 21, 2013

Sneaking God Into Science Classes: The Rise Of The ‘Academic Freedom’ Bill

Right-wing religious groups are fighting harder than ever to bring Christianity into the classroom, and in some states, they’re actually winning.

Since 2004, militant Christians in various states have pushed for legislators to pass “academic freedom” bills. According to the National Center for Science Education, these bills permit, but do not require, teachers to include Creationist material in science classes:

There are two main strains of “academic freedom” bills. The first mandates that teachers be able to discuss “the full range of scientific views regarding biological and chemical evolution,” and offers students “protection for subscribing to a particular position on views regarding biological or chemical evolution.”

The second strain does not purport to be concerned with student rights, and cites the need to help students develop “critical thinking skills” on “controversial issues.” To this end, it permits teachers to discuss “the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.”

Writing in February for The Week, Dana Liebelson called the bill “Creationism in sheep’s clothing.” It’s trickier to navigate than your average Intelligent Design bill, she wrote, because it technically doesn’t mandate religious curriculum. Instead, it advocated for students to consider different “perspectives” when it came to science education.

A U.S. district court ruled in 2005 that teaching Intelligent Design in public schools is unconstitutional, but this type of bill might be a way for Christian zealots to sidestep that hurdle. And now that activists have discovered the loophole, academic freedom bills are showing up in more legislatures than ever before:

In the last few years, the number of these bills has skyrocketed, with 51 proposed since 2004, and twice as many proposed this year than in all of 2012. (Remember, it’s only February).

According to Liebelson, academic freedom bills specifically target science education, encouraging students to explore “alternative theories” to well-established scientific principles like climate change and evolution (apparently you can get away with anything if it’s in the name of creative exchange):

The secret weapon in these bills is the idea that pupils should understand the “strengths and weaknesses” of different scientific theories. Which theories? Well, as a bill proposed by four Republican state senators in Arizona makes clear, that would be “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning.” Coincidentally, these are the exact same theories that House Bill 1674 in Oklahoma, proposed by GOP state Rep. Gus Blackwell, considers controversial. His legislation even prevents teachers from flunking students who write papers debunking their textbook material. Seriously.

Thankfully, scientists don’t exactly agree with Blackwell’s proposal:

Teachers and scientists say they’re all for scientific questioning — when it’s actually about science. “Teaching about the existence of genuine scientific controversy is educationally valuable, but it must be genuine controversy, with serious scientists lining up on both sides,” says Richard Dawkins of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. “Intelligent design is not a scientific theory.”

Because an academic freedom bill can, in some ways, seem less threatening than a bill mandating religious curriculum, provisions for anything-goes science education can go virtually undetected:

The language in most of these bills is so obtuse that you might not even know if you live in one of the six states considering them (Montana, Colorado, Oklahoma, Arizona, Missouri, and Indiana).

In most states, academic freedom bills have failed — but they’re gaining momentum. In 2008 Louisiana became the first state to successfully pass one. In 2011, another passed in Tennessee. Colorado rejected an academic freedom bill in early February, while bills have been tabled in several other states.

But it’s a slippery slope from so-called academic freedom to outright evangelizing in schools, and that might be where we’re headed if the trend keeps up. As Liebelson writes of one politician:

Rick Brattin, a Republican state representative in Missouri, went so far as to propose a bill late last month that actually requires Missouri public school teachers to devote equal time and space to the teaching of intelligent design, “destiny,” and any other creation theory a teacher might want to rustle up. “I’ve had numerous college professors within biology, school science teachers… who say they are not allowed to teach any type of theory [like Intelligent Design]… They are banned from the science community,” he tells The Riverfront Times.

Ironically, the state rep’s frustration says it all. We’ve reached a point where elected officials are disgusted that science classes teach, well, science. Politicians may hold whatever beliefs they choose, but hijacking a student’s education in the name of religion is more offensive than anything.

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