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Academic Freedom in Virginia: Don’t Want to Read the Text of the Bill? Read the "Context" Instead

Joshua Youngkin

State Capitol of Virginia.jpg

Daily Beast writer Karl Giberson is worried about a bill in Virginia that, according to the bill’s text, would bar school administrators from barring teachers from "review[ing] in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in science classes."

What does that mean? Among other things it means that a school principal couldn’t discipline a public school teacher for teaching science students how to critique lines of text in a science textbook. Suppose, for example, that public school textbook X says P. Suppose published paper Y says not P. Under the prospective law, for the sake of, say, demonstrating scientific critique a teacher could, without fear of administrative reprisal, introduce Y to rebut X with respect to P.

Here, more concretely, is what that might look. Biologist Ken Miller’s popular textbook Biology states: "[E]very scientific test to date has supported Darwin’s basic ideas." Conversely, evolutionary biologist and historian of science William Provine stated in a talk that "[e]very assertion of the evolutionary synthesis [listed] below is false," including the assertion that "[n]atural selection was the primary mechanism at every level of the evolutionary process." (To be clear, this assertion is one of "Darwin’s basic ideas.")

Under the prospective law, a Virginia public school teacher who, say, uses the warring propositions above to start a lesson on the debate within evolutionary biology over the mechanisms that drive evolution couldn’t get in trouble for doing so. Now, why is that a bad thing? Because, according to Giberson, "House Bill No. 207 in Virginia, taken out of context, looks benign." "Taken out of context," Giberson emphasizes, "the Virginia bill appears attractive, which is why such bills can get traction so quickly."

And the benign attractiveness of the Virginia bill is bad because, according to Giberson, it is just cover for "presenting views of origins held by virtually nobody in the scientific community." If the bill becomes law, students in Virginia "will learn these [views] and countless other things that students in Japan, Germany, France, Canada and the rest of the developed world are not learning," he warns.

Now, if Giberson were really concerned about global competitiveness, he’d have trotted out some numbers, maybe some internationally benchmarked math scores, and maybe a bar graph or a pie chart to illustrate how poorly our kids are supposedly doing. But, no, his real concern is that a "contextual" reading of the Virginia bill would, if passed into law, ultimately produce religious instruction in public school science class.

Fortunately, the text of the bill unambiguously calls for the exact opposite. "Nothing in this section shall be construed to promote … religion," it reads. Unlike "context," which is like a vapor, a reader can literally place a finger on the authoritative text of this prospective statute. Lawyers and jurists lean on text because, unlike "context," it can bear the weight. Call it a legal practitioner’s value.

In light of this value, no judge in Virginia or elsewhere will consult the Scopes trial of 1925 or any other bit of causally irrelevant "context" in order to interpret and apply the prospective statute, pace Giberson, should that ever become necessary. Neither will school district counsel, which is charged with school district legal compliance. As I mentioned earlier ("In Virginia, an Academic Freedom Bill Attracts Ire"), courts and counsel will take seriously the "no religion" requirement of the Virginia bill, which means school districts and their employees will as well.

Image: Virginia State Capitol, Steve Tatum/Flickr.

Joshua Youngkin

An attorney, and previously, Discovery Institute Program Officer in Public Policy and Legal Affairs.



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