Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education recently penned an interesting – if alarming – article for “Religion Dispatches” on an overlooked anniversary: It was 100 years ago that legislators in Kentucky almost passed a bill criminalizing the teaching of evolution in public schools.
As Branch notes, the measure would have prohibited “the teaching in public schools and other public institutions of learning, Darwinism, atheism, agnosticism or evolution as it pertains to the origin of man.”
The bill assigned a monetary fine to offenders of between $50 and $5,000 – that’s $825 and $82,500 in today’s money. It also would have allowed for teachers who violated the law to be sent to jail for 10 days to one year and stripped the schools of their charters and fined them as well – up to $5,000.
Wow – punitive measures much?
Branch writes that the bill “languished in committee until March 5, 1922, when, after a day of intense debate in the House, it was finally defeated on a narrow vote of 42 to 41.”
That was good news for Kentucky. Not far away in Arkansas, however, things turned out differently six years later. Voters used a ballot initiative to enact a law making it “unlawful for any [public school] teacher … to teach the theory or doctrine that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals. [A]nd also it shall be unlawful for any teacher … to adopt or use in any such institution a textbook that teaches the doctrine or theory that mankind descended or ascended from a lower order of animals.”
Violating the law would bring a $500 fine at a time when teachers in most states earned less than $2,000 a year.
While Arkansas’ anti-evolution law was never aggressively enforced, you can’t help but wonder how many teachers decided not to take the chance of being sanctioned and either watered down instruction about evolution or didn’t offer it at all. (The law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968’s Epperson v. Arkansas.)
Although 100 years have passed since Kentucky’s ill-fated effort, anti-evolution bills are still surfacing in the states – and the tactic of threatening teachers with steep fines is suddenly in vogue again among Christian nationalist zealots. Branch points to a bill recently introduced in Oklahoma, Senate Bill 1470, that gives parents a right to sue if a public school teacher offers instruction that is “in opposition to closely held religious beliefs” of students. Teachers who violate the provision would be fined $10,000 per incident. As Branch writes, evolution is not mentioned by name in the legislation, but the bill’s sponsor has previously supported anti-evolution efforts.
Extreme measures like this usually don’t pass. But as Branch notes, it’s discouraging to see them still coming 100 years after the collapse of Kentucky’s misguided proposal.
Americans who support sound science education in public schools must remain vigilant. Remember, creationists who yearn to teach biblical fundamentalism in public schools have been at this a long time. Their political tactics are evolving. So must ours.