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Regarding Indiana Academic Freedom Bill, Newspapers Need a Lesson in Credible Legal Analysis


Last Sunday the South Bend Tribune ran an editorial that was first published a few weeks ago in the Elkhart Truth. Headlined “Hoosier lawmakers need a civics test,” it attacked SB 562 an academic freedom bill in the state of Indiana. The legal analysis from these newspapers leaves much to be desired.

The editorial asserts:

Senators Jeff Raatz and Dennis Kruse introduced SB 562, offering legal protection to teachers who explore creationism — or other subjects Raatz describes as “open to debate” — as part of public school science classes.

Raatz, a Centerville Republican, contends that he and Kruse only want to encourage critical thinking. And if that gets creationism into public school science classes, Raatz told a reporter for the Lafayette Journal & Courier, so be it.

This is yet another example of how the media twists the words of people they disagree to suit their own agendas. Here’s what the Lafayette Journal & Courier actually reported that Raatz said:

Call it a back-door approach to failed attempts to chip away at state standards on teaching evolution and to bring creationism into the public school classroom, if you want, Raatz said. The bulk of the science world probably will, he figured. He considers it a call to action on critical thinking.

“As long as they do it respectfully,” Raatz asked Tuesday, “why should we be afraid of that?”

Now where in this quote does Senator Raatz actually say that the bill protects the teaching of creationism? Nowhere. If Raatz really had said that creationism could be taught under the bill, I’m sure the newspaper would have gleefully quoted him as saying exactly that. Instead we see a characterization of a conversation filtered through the agenda of a hostile newspaper editorialist.

I asked Senator Raatz what happened in this conversation and this is what he told me:

I never said that the bill was about teaching creationism. The reporter asked “Are you advocating the teaching of creationism,” and I said “Absolutely not. That’s not what I’m saying.” Rather, I said that critics would say that the bill was going to be about teaching creationism, which is exactly what they said.

Indeed, if the backers of the academic freedom bill want to promote the teaching of creationism, they are going about doing it in a strange way. The Indiana bill does not protect the teaching of religion. Here’s what the bill, in fact, says:

(f) This section protects only the teaching of scientific information, and may not be construed to promote:
(1) any religious or nonreligious doctrine;
(2) discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or nonbeliefs; or
(3) discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.

According to the bill’s own language, it’s impossible that the teaching of religious beliefs like creationism would be protected.

The editorial then tries another old canard — comparing modern academic freedom bills to creationism laws that were adopted back in the 1980s:

Louisiana passed a law in the early 1980s that said if public schools taught evolution, they also needed to teach creationism.
Just like Raatz, supporters claimed they only sought to promote academic freedom.

The Fifth District Court of Appeals saw through the ruse, concluding that the law existed to promote a religious doctrine — “creation science.”

In Edwards v. Aguillard, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. Louisiana, the justices concluded, violated the Establishment Clause by “advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created mankind.”

This is a grossly inaccurate comparison, as we’ve pointed out in the past here and here. The language, purpose, and intent of the Balanced Treatment Act that Louisiana adopted in 1981 are completely different from that of modern academic freedom legislation.

According to the language of the Balanced Treatment Act, it was enacted to “give balanced treatment to the creation-science model and the evolution-science model.” In contrast, the Indiana academic freedom bill would not protect the teaching of “creation science.” It explicitly states: “This section protects only the teaching of scientific information, and may not be construed to promote: (1) any religious or nonreligious doctrine.” Since, as the Indiana editorial notes, the Supreme Court declared creation science to be a religious viewpoint, it is not protected under the academic freedom bill.

The editorial closes by saying that “to promote discussion of what Raatz calls ‘competing theories,’ violates U.S. law.” Apparently the journalists are unfamiliar with what the U.S. Supreme Court majority actually ruled in the Edwards v. Aguillard case. If we go to the actual language of the decision, it states:

“We do not imply that a legislature could never require that scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories be taught. . . . [T]eaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to schoolchildren might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction.”

(Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 593-594 (1987).

That language says it is completely legal to teach non-evolutionary competing theories of origins provided that they are scientific. In its ruling, the Supreme Court found that creationism is not scientific but is instead a religious viewpoint. “Competing theories” on origins are legal to teach, even if they disagree with the standard evolutionary viewpoint, provided they are scientific and not religious.

Just because it is legal to teach scientific alternatives to evolution, that doesn’t mean that it’s the best way to approach the topic in public schools. As we’ve explained before, academic freedom legislation protects the rights of teachers to discuss the scientific strengths and weaknesses of topics that are already in the curriculum. Evolution is in the curriculum, but scientific alternatives like intelligent design are not, and thus they don’t come under the bill.

The lesson here? Whether you’re talking about newspapers articles, bills before the state legislature, or court rulings, it’s best to go back and read the original language. In the case of legislation, that’s vital if you want to understand what’s legal under the law and what’s not.

The only time this editorial directly cites any relevant legal language is when it quotes the Supreme Court ruling that creationism is a religious belief. That, incidentally, is about the only legal claim the article gets right.

Image: Indiana State House, by Jasont82 at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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