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Fact or Fiction: Addressing Misconceptions about Alabama’s Academic Freedom Bill

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Editor’s note: We are delighted to welcome a new contributor, Sarah Chaffee, who recently joined the staff of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture as Program Officer for Education and Public Policy.

An academic freedom bill has been filed in Alabama, and AL.com recently published a piece by Shelly Haskins, opinion manager for Alabama Media Group, expressing opposition. According to Haskins, the proposed bill, HB 592, would allow the teaching of creationism while opening the door to litigation. Meanwhile a critic at Political Moll accuses the bill of making evolution optional in the classroom. Permit me to alleviate these concerns.

Haskins maintains that the bill disguises its purpose of allowing the teaching of creationism:

The bill itself doesn’t directly say that teachers are free to teach creationism, but masks the intent in veiled language of academic freedom.

He argues that this is the case because the bill is “based on a ‘model bill’ pushed out by the pro-creationism Discovery Institute in Seattle.”

Of course his assertion is false. Discovery Institute does not advocate creationism. Moreover, he does not quote the actual language of the bill, which makes clear that religious views like creationism may not be taught:

This section only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or promote discrimination for or against a religion.

Public schools cannot teach creationism legally. The Supreme Court has long held that it is unconstitutional to teach religion in the classroom and the Court has also held that creationism is a religious belief (Edwards v. Aguillard).

In the same vein, the National Center for Science Education calls Alabama’s academic freedom bill another “Tennessee Monkey bill,” and Haskins quotes them on that. But the nickname is inaccurate, seeking to draw a false historical analogy to the Scopes “Monkey” Trial. Like the Alabama bill, Tennessee’s act does not allow the teaching of creationism.

There also seems to be some confusion about whether the bill would allow teachers to discuss intelligent design. It would not. Section 1(d) of the bill notes:

Neither the State Board of Education nor any local board of education, public school superintendent, public school principal, or public school administrator shall prohibit any teacher of a public school from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of all existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught within the curriculum framework developed by the State Board of Education.

The bill addresses only those topics that are currently part of the school’s science curriculum, which does not include intelligent design. Teaching the strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory is not the same as teaching about ID. To demonstrate the validity of intelligent design, one must present positive evidence for the theory. A critique of evolution is one thing, and the positive case for ID is another. Intelligent design and neo-Darwinism are separate scientific theories. Again, as the language quoted above suggests, the Alabama academic freedom bill protects objective instruction only about topics that are “within the curriculum framework” and does not allow the addition of new topics (such as intelligent design) to the curriculum.

Over at Political Moll, David Bain claims that the Alabama bill is based upon Tennessee’s 2012 law which, he says, made teaching “Evolution optional.” This too is incorrect.

Under both Tennessee’s law and Alabama’s HB 592, the standard curriculum framework must still be taught, including the theory of evolution. As I said already, Alabama’s bill states that teachers can objectively discuss “scientific theories covered in the course being taught within the curriculum framework developed by the State Board of Education.” Teachers still must teach about evolution but they are protected from repercussions if they do so objectively, covering both the scientific strengths and weaknesses of the theory.

A final question about the Alabama bill concerns whether or not it would lead to litigation from groups such as the ACLU.

The executive director of the state’s ACLU, Susan Watson, told AL.com that the bill “opens Alabama to costly litigation that it just cannot afford.”

The history of academic freedom bills says otherwise. States that have passed similar academic freedom bills (Tennessee in 2012 and Louisiana in 2008) have not been sued. The reason that they have not faced litigation is that the laws explicitly do not protect the teaching of religion and only protect the teaching of science. There’s nothing unconstitutional about teaching science.

Indeed, it’s ironic that the Alabama ACLU would oppose the bill when the Louisiana ACLU’s executive director has said that that state’s law (which is very similar to Alabama’s bill) is constitutional as it was written. We’ve pointed this out before, quoting a Louisiana TV station:

ACLU Executive Director Marjorie Esman said that if the Act is utilized as written, it should be fine; though she is not sure it will be handled that way.

One hopes the Alabama ACLU executive director will be just as candid in the future.

Haskins cites the preamble to HB 592, which expresses the value of helping students to “understand, analyze, critique, and review the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of all existing scientific theories covered in a science course.” As Haskins acknowledges, it “Sounds like a general job description of what science teachers should be doing anyway.”

We agree. Unfortunately, in Alabama and elsewhere, public school instructors who teach critical thinking skills in the context of biological evolution risk their reputations and careers. Alabama’s academic freedom bill would permit teachers to foster an environment of scientific inquiry by educating students about the evidence on both sides of scientific controversies. Passing the law would do a service to educational excellence in Alabama.

Image: Capitol Building, Mongomery, Alabama, by Carol M. Highsmith, via Wikipedia.