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In Virginia, an Academic Freedom Bill Attracts Ire

Joshua Youngkin

VA state seal.jpg

Delegate Richard Bell (R) of Virginia recently filed an academic freedom bill for consideration in 2014. This event caught the eye of reporter Josh Israel and the ire of blogger/biologist Jerry Coyne. Why the fuss?

Because the bill, if passed into law, would bar school admins from barring in class critique of the school’s official science curricula, even when the texts cover matters considered by Coyne et al. to be settled. Under the prospective law, public school teachers and students could, in pursuit of any pedagogical purpose, interrogate any line found in the district’s science textbooks without fear of administrative reprisal.

Here’s the language:

  1. The Board and each local school board, division superintendent, and school board employee shall create an environment in public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about scientific controversies in science classes.

  2. The Board and each local school board, division superintendent, and school board employee shall assist teachers to find effective ways to present scientific controversies in science classes.

  3. Neither the Board nor any local school board, division superintendent, or school board employee shall prohibit any public elementary or secondary school teacher from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in science classes.

  4. Nothing in this section shall be construed to promote or discriminate against any religious or nonreligious doctrine, promote or discriminate against a particular set of religious beliefs or nonbeliefs, or promote or discriminate against religion or nonreligion.

In his report Israel said Bell’s bill "would require Virginia elementary and secondary schools to teach about ‘scientific controversies’ in science classes."

Allow? Yes, at least when the subject is already addressed by the official text. But require? No.

More from Israel: "[the bill] creates a right for teachers to teach kids to be skeptical of ‘scientific theories’ — even when overwhelming scientific consensus exists."

Yes, so long as the purpose of the exercise of the "skepticism right" is pedagogical rather than religious. See section D above. Skepticism and textual critique are good skills for science students to master, even when practiced on "settled" topics.

Coyne was bothered less by the "skepticism right" of section C than by section D’s "no religion" limitation to that right. Of that he says: "Asserting that the bill should not be construed as religious doesn’t make it so."

Courts tend to defer to a legislature’s instructions on how their legislation is to be construed and applied, particularly when such legislative intent is printed plainly on the face of the legislation itself, as in the case here. In the event of passage, school district attorneys will advise their school district clients to take the "no religion" language seriously, even if Dr. Coyne does not.

Image: Virginia State Seal outside State Capitol, MudflapDC/Flickr.

Joshua Youngkin

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