Alabama Academic Freedom Act

The Discovery Institute has issued a press release about the Alabama “Academic Freedom Act”. As is customary, they applaud the efforts of anti-evolution activists to corrupt American education. This bill seeks to empower any teacher in the state of Alabama “to present scientific information pertaining to the full range of scientific views concerning biological or physical origins in any curricula or course of learning.”

Before I turn to the press release, I want to address the bill itself. First off, Alabama Citizens for Science Education has both an educational analysis and a legal analysis of an earlier version of the “Academic Freedom Act.” The National Center for Science Education also has information on the legislation.

Now on the question of constitutionality of this law, the Lemon Test–from Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) and modified in Agostini v. Felton (1997)–holds that for a law to satisfy the establishment clause of the US Constitution:

  • It must have a secular purpose; and
  • Its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion.

Criteria to determine if the law’s effect advances religion include:

  • results in governmental indoctrination;
  • defines its recipients by reference to religion; or
  • creates an excessive entanglement between government and religion.

For more information see Prygoski (2002) pp 291-292.

Now the bill raises some questions, which I think help determine its purpose.

  • Why is only a single topic, “origins,” addressed in the bill? Why is it not important to preserve the academic freedom of teachers who what to present scientific information pertaining to the full range of scientific views concerning the shape of the Earth, the existence of God, or the inferiority of certain ethnicities? Wouldn’t a generic bill be better?
  • Why can any teacher present “scientific information pertaining to the full range of scientific views concerning . . . origins in any curricula or course of learning?” Why should an English or PE teacher be empowered to suspend class to lecture on biology? As the bill currently stands, an English teacher could refuse to teach English but instead spend the entire year on “origins” and could not be reprimanded for it.
  • Is a teacher still protected if she mistakenly or intentionally presents pseudo-science as science?
  • If the act truly has a secular purpose, why does it need a disclaimer? “It doth protest too much, methinks.”
  • Why is this bill even needed if Supreme Court precedent already acknowledges that scientific critiques of prevailing theories can be part of public education?

Although this bill might be well intentioned–snicker, laugh, snort–I believe that its primary effect will be to advance religion, specifically the religiously motivated anti-evolutionism promoted by the Discovery Institute, Institute for Creation Research, Answers in Genesis, Creation Science Evangelism, Focus on the Family, etc. The bill is not motivated by a desire to improve the Alabama’s education system, or it would not contain the serious academic flaws that it does. Instead it is motivated by the desire of the religious right to insulate their view of the world from the consensus of modern science. By empowering any teacher to “correct” biology education with immunity, the bill’s supporters hope to advance a specific religious view. Although, the new version of the bill makes an attempt to restrict the “corrections” to scientific ones, the actual effect will be to encourage poorly trained teachers to present unscientific and religiously motivated criticisms of modern science. In fact, the sponsers of the bill make it clear that this is their intention.

Evolution is one theory, creation is an alternative theory.

Rep. Jim Carns

This bill will level the playing field because it allows a teacher to bring forward the biblical creation story of humankind.

Sen. Wendell Mitchell

Now to the Discovery Institute’s press release. The press release consists mostly of reporting on the changes made to the bill in the House Education committee. What it doesn’t say is that there is only one day left in the legislative calendar of Alabama (Monday, May 17th) for the House to vote on the bill. After that the Senate and the House will have to come to a compromise on the exact language of the bill. All these changes that the Discovery Institute applauds might not even be in a final version of the bill approved by both houses.

The press release ends with the following whopper:

“Around the country teachers have been punished or even fired for simply trying to present mainstream scientific criticisms about evolutionary theory,” says Cooper. . . .

Is your jaw off the floor yet? “Cooper” refers to attorney Seth Cooper, program officer for public and legal affairs at Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. The Discovery Institute is manufacturing an academic crisis where none exist and thus bearing false witness. Because there are no “mainstream scientific criticisms about evolutionary theory,” it would be rather difficult for teachers to have been punished for presenting them. I urge Cooper that, if he cares about his reputation and that of the Discovery Institute, to correct the record here. I challenge Cooper and the Discovery Institute to present even a single instance where a teacher was punished for presenting “mainstream scientific criticisms of evolutionary theory.” Specifically demonstrate

  • what the teacher presented,
  • that it is part of mainstream science, and
  • that the teacher was indeed punished.

I am sure that I can trust the DI Fellows who read this blog to help set the record straight.

  • Prygoski PJ (2002) Sum & Substance Quick Review of Constitutional Law 8th ed. West Group