South Dakota Legislators Stave Off Anti-Evolution Bill

Good news for the integrity of science and church-state separation in South Dakota: The state House Education Committee on Wednesday rejected a bill that would have opened the door to teaching “intelligent design” – which is really just creationism – in public school science classrooms.

Senate Bill 55 would have allowed teachers to introduce “in an objective scientific manner the strengths and weaknesses of scientific information,” but thankfully the House committee first voted it down 9-6, and then deferred it to the 41st day of the legislative session – effectively killing the measure.

While the so-called “Academic Freedom Bill” is less than 40 words long and doesn’t mention intelligent design, creationism or evolution, there are two main indicators that its real intent is about giving educators leeway to teach intelligent design.

First, its sponsor – Republican Sen. Jeff Monroe – has introduced similar legislation annually since 2014 when he first sponsored a bill that explicitly called for the teaching of intelligent design. Monroe himself killed his first bill, indicating he would try again with a more generically worded bill in an attempt to avoid controversy.

Second, SB 55 uses the code words “strengths and weaknesses” of science that have been co-opted by the “teach the controversy” crowd that wrongfully wants intelligent design to be taught as a legitimate scientific theory alongside evolution.

“These are weasel-worded bills that come up every once and awhile,” said University of South Dakota biology professor Hugh Britten. “The strength and weaknesses language is common for creationist bills. You can’t have a law that says x, y and z, you have to fool the legislature.”

AU’s Legislative Director Maggie Garrett pointed this out in a letter opposing the bill that was sent to House committee leaders: “Rather than promote scientific thought, (the bill) would authorize teachers to discuss and teach ‘intelligent design’ as a ‘critique’ or ‘weakness’ of evolution.”

Garrett added there is “no scientific basis for intelligent design and federal courts have made clear that teaching it in public school science classrooms violates” church-state separation. One of those court decisions came from the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover case brought by Americans United and allies in Pennsylvania.

Intelligent design is not science and it should not be taught in public school science classes.

AU wasn’t alone in opposing South Dakota’s “alternative facts” legislation. Many organizations and individuals in the science and education communities objected. Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, said the bill could lead to educators introducing climate change denial and white supremacy in addition to creationism. It also would make it difficult for local school boards to rein in maverick teachers who stray from the approved curriculum, he said.

The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based organization that supports the teaching of intelligent design in public schools, took exception to AU’s showcasing the intent of South Dakota’s bill.

Here’s how Sarah Chaffee, their program officer in public policy and education, described the bill: “it also gives teachers academic freedom to choose to teach about both ‘the strengths and weaknesses of scientific information’ in the standards – such as evidence for and against the neo-Darwinian ‘consensus.’”

It’s a strange argument: There is no evidence that contradicts the “consensus” on evolution – only conflicting religious beliefs. And science teachers shouldn’t be teaching against the scientific consensus anyway.

While South Dakota’s alternative science bill is in hibernation for the year, Indiana, Oklahoma and Texas still have similar legislation pending.