January 2007 Church & State | People & Events

A preview of the next wave of attacks on teaching evolution in public schools may be under way in a Louisiana parish, where education officials have just approved a new policy dealing with scientific subjects that generate “controversy.”

Members of the Ouachita Parish School Board unanimously approved the policy in late November. It states in part that the district “understands that the teaching of some scientific subjects such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning, can cause controversy and that some teachers may be unsure of the district’s expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects.”

The policy goes on to assert, “[T]eachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught.”

The policy’s introduction includes language from the conference report of the 2001 “No Child Left Behind” federal education bill. That language, pushed by former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) says, “Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics may generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society.”

Although other issues are mentioned in the policy, during the debate board members spent most of their time talking about evolution. Member Red Sims expressed his opposition to teaching children that people come from monkeys. (Evolutionary theory holds that apes and humans share a common ancestor, not that apes evolved into humans.)

Attempting to portray evolution as a controversy alongside human cloning and insisting that teachers portray both sides is the latest strategy from advocates of “intelligent design” (ID). Stung by recent courtroom and electoral defeats, ID backers are regrouping and looking for new ways to get their ideas into America’s classrooms.

Following the Ouachita board’s approval of the policy, the Discovery In­sti­tute, a leading ID group, issued a press release praising the board.

“We’re very happy to see them take a stand protecting the academic freedom of teachers to answer student questions and discuss scientific issues in the classroom,” said Casey Luskin, an attorney with the organization. “Teachers are the real winners in this case because they now have clear protection to help their students analyze all aspects of controversial scientific issues without worrying whether or not they will be fired or censored by their school district.”

But critics counter that the policy is yet another attempt to bring creationist ideas in through the backdoor, under the guise of academic freedom.

“This is, I think, the next wave of attack by anti-evolution forces to get their materials into public schools,” Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, told the Associated Press.

ID backers lost political momentum in two states in November. In Ohio, three candidates who support teaching evolution were elected. Those members, along with members to be appointed by the state’s new governor, Ted Strickland, assure the board will remain in moderate hands.

In Kansas, moderates who oppose teaching creationism now hold a one-vote majority on the state education board. The new board is expected to revise Kansas’ science standards, which have been tilted toward intelligent design.

But ID backers are not giving up. In November, John G. West, associate direc­tor of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, told Baptist Press that the group has drafted a “model academic freedom bill” it is promoting in the state legislatures.

West said the bill “protects the rights of teachers and students to discuss scientific criticisms of evolution” and added that it has been pushed most recently in Alabama and Oklahoma.