New legislation introduced in a handful of states would allow alternatives to the theory of evolution to be taught in classrooms, the latest wave of measures backed by religious conservatives targeting broadly accepted scientific curriculum.
The measures could also allow teachers to question whether humans are contributing to climate change, something widely accepted by the scientific community.
South Dakota’s Senate this week approved a measure that prohibits school boards from preventing teachers from questioning established scientific theories. Similar bills are making their way through legislatures in Oklahoma and Indiana.
The bills represent something of an evolution themselves: They do not specifically mention creationism or intelligent design, two alternatives to evolution theory advanced by religious conservatives. Instead, they allow teachers to address the “strengths and weaknesses” of material being taught to students.
Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, said the new effort aims to undermine evolution by preventing school districts from blocking teachers who question scientific consensus.
“They’re no longer trying to ban teaching evolution. They’re no longer trying to balance teaching evolution. They’re now trying to belittle evolution,” Branch said.
Proponents of the measures say they do not allow teachers to inject religion into science classes. Model bills make clear that teachers are to question theories in an “objective” manner by focusing on “scientific information.”
“Good science is based on critical inquiry, not unthinking dogmatism,” said John West, vice president of the Discovery Institute, a group that advances the idea of intelligent design. “If we want to equip today’s students to be tomorrow’s innovators, we need to teach them how to be out of the box thinkers who know how to sift and analyze competing explanations in light of the evidence.”
Science groups worry that the new measures will be more difficult to challenge in court. While earlier attempts have been shot down, the new bills are crafted to withstand facial challenges, Branch said.
“It makes the bills very hard to challenge on the basis that they’re unconstitutional, because they’re not requiring anyone to do anything,” he said.
The bills would also put school boards in the untenable position of being open to lawsuits from teachers, if they try to block the presentation of alternative ideas, and from parents, if they allow those alternative ideas to be presented.
This new wave of legislation targeting scientific theories on evolution and climate change began a dozen years ago, when Alabama legislators considered the first of this type of measure in 2004. Since then, about 70 similar measures questioning evolution have been introduced in states across the country.
Two states — Louisiana in 2008 and Tennessee in 2012 — have passed measures allowing teachers to question the theory of evolution.
The legislation is marching forward amid worries that the Trump administration will lead an onslaught against policies combating climate change.
Plans are already in the works for a "Science March on Washington" for this spring, following the model of the Women's March that drew some 500,000 demonstrators to the nation's capital last weekend.
A Facebook page for the organizing group, which has about 150,000 followers, says the march will be “by scientists and science enthusiasts in protest of the policies of the United States Congress" and Trump.
The South Dakota measure illustrates the change in tactics by those who want to challenge the teaching of evolution in schools.
The sponsor, state Sen. Jeff Monroe (R), introduced a measure in 2014 that would have explicitly allowed the teaching of intelligent design. That bill died in committee.
The following year, Monroe introduced legislation that encouraged teachers to present evolution, climate change and other subjects “that may cause debate and disputation.” That measure also died without reaching the Senate floor.
This year, Monroe’s bill did not mention any specific debates. The words “evolution,” “intelligent design,” “climate change” and “global warming” do not appear in the legislative language. And the bill specifically says the language “may not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine.”
Advocates of straightforward science curricula argue that “strengths and weaknesses” are not scientific terms in and of themselves. Instead, those words introduce value judgments in place of traditional scientific rigor, they say.
Branch said attacks on the theory of evolution have come in waves over the last century. Legislators and school districts tried to ban the teaching of evolution in the 1920s.
In the 1970s and 1980s, legislators tried to balance evolution by teaching creationism, creation science and intelligent design as well.