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Using Academic Freedom to Keep God in the Science Classroom

by WS Editors

Jun 1, 2008 | Legal Affairs


AFTER THE DOVER, PENNSYLVANIA, SCHOOL BOARD adopted the concept of “intelligent design” into its biology curriculum in the fall of 2004, Seth Cooper, an attorney with the Discovery Institute, headed for south-central Pennsylvania to visit the school district. Cooper should have been a supporter of the Dover board’s actions. The Seattle-based Discovery Institute is the nation’s champion of the “scientific theory of intelligent design.” But Cooper realized that the board was driving intelligent design toward a test case. If it failed to pass constitutional muster, that would be a serious blow to Discovery’s long-term goals: defeating “scientific materialism” and replacing it with “a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”

Cooper urged the board members to reconsider their required disclaimer that would warn students about evolution. The board members declined. They were leading “a revolution in evolution.” As a result, they were sued by parents and teachers, and what Discovery feared most came to pass. A year later in a courtroom in Harrisburg, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III issued a strongly worded rebuke to the Dover school board. The judge ruled that intelligent design is religion masquerading as science. Because it held that life’s complexity demands a guiding hand of the divine, intelligent design was repackaged creationism.

GEARING UP AGAIN—For the Discovery Institute, much was at stake in its response to the Kitzmiller decision. The organization’s Center for Science and Culture owes its existence to intelligent design. So in 2006, the Discovery staff published a peevish critique of Jones’s decision in the bookTraipsing into Evolution: Intelligent Design and the Kitzmiller v. Dover Decision.

Despite the book’s defense of intelligent design, its final chapter reveals that the Institute has abandoned the concept—at least that is Discovery’s public position. Instead of advocating intelligent design, the authors laid out a plan for the next attempt at subverting the teaching of evolutionary theory, this time using the code words “academic freedom.”

“After Kitzmiller, no one can seriously maintain that academic freedom to study all of the evidence relating to Darwinian evolution is secure,” the authors of Traipsing into Evolution wrote. “As a consequence, administrative guidelines, even legislative enactments, are needed to provide clearer protection for the rights of students and teachers to critically analyze Darwin’s theory in the classroom.”

This spring, the anti-evolutionists unveiled creationism 3.0. And they’ve already begun a two-pronged marketing campaign.

First, they tried to sway public opinion by releasing Expelled, a slickly produced documentary starring Ben Stein, the Nixon speechwriter turned actor. The film argues that academic freedom is under attack because science academics who embrace intelligent design are being persecuted.

The anti-evolutionists are also lobbying state legislatures. At about the same time the movie was released, the Florida House of Representatives introduced legislation, under the guise of academic freedom, that would protect public-school educators who offer “critical analysis” of evolution or teach alternative “scientific views of biological or chemical evolution.” Louisiana, Alabama, Michigan and Missouri have introduced similarly worded bills. In Texas, educators are watching warily and say that they expect to see their state unveiling its own version in 2009.

Barbara Forrest, the Southeastern Louisiana University philosophy professor whose damning testimony as an expert witness in the Dover trial exposed the Discovery Institute’s creationist links, believes the legislation is just the latest way to sneak God into science class.

Forrest read Traipsing into Evolution and took note of the detailed exposition of the creationists’ next marketing campaign, but the words “academic freedom” eventually slipped her mind. “It’s just one of those things you forget about,” Forrest said. “Then you go back and it’s all here.”

Brandon Haught of the Florida Citizens for Science believes the Discovery Institute has now shifted its attention from its previous targets—state boards of education revamping curriculum standards—to lawmakers because they may be more sensitive to political pressure.

The creationists’ most recent move fits the pattern they have used as they have unsuccessfully tried to advance their agenda. With each constitutional defeat, the movement further dilutes its scientific assertions with vague terms and misleading language, in order to make it over the hurdle of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The latest strategy—using academic freedom to advance their agenda—is essentially creationism distilled down to pure nod and wink. Yet from a legal perspective, the strategy presents special challenges for defenders of the First Amendment.

Eric Rothschild, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney in the Dover lawsuit, has been watching the developments closely. Acknowledging that the wording of the bills is “fairly anodyne,” Rothschild said the intent is nevertheless evident.

“We know what is really going on,” he said. “We know the sources are the same as with Dover. And it’s hard to tolerate that, but a court coming to this cold may not see that.”

Rothschild said that an attorney considering a lawsuit would have to decide whether to challenge the law immediately and “risk validation of these academic freedom bills” if they stood up in court, or wait until a teacher takes advantage of the wording in the classroom to castigate evolutionary theory and proselytize students. It would be, he said, a judgment call whether to allow this small victory for creationist forces in order build a stronger case.

FROM COURTHOUSE TO STATEHOUSE—Last fall the Discovery Institute and Motive Marketing, the publicists for the Ben Stein movie, launched a joint-venture website that promotes “academic freedom” bills and provides suggested wording for legislators. With minor revisions, the wording of the state bills introduced thus far closely follows the website’s model legislation.

Stein, most famous for his role as the uninspiring teacher in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, has been lending his Hollywood celebrity status to the effort. Accompanied by Discovery Institute members, Stein has held press conferences and hosted private screenings of Expelled for lawmakers in Florida and Missouri.

Casey Luskin, an organizer for the Academic Freedom Petition, declined to be interviewed, but he said in an e-mail that the Discovery Institute has been promoting the academic freedom argument since at least 2002.

Forrest said creationists have been using the phrase for far longer. The term academic freedom, in this context, is code for teaching creationism. It first appeared in the creationism debate in 1981 in Louisiana’s Balanced Treatment Act. The act was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard decision. “On the first page of that decision,” Forrest noted, “the Supreme Court said it did not buy the academic freedom argument.”

The decision reads: “The Act does not further its stated secular purpose of ‘protecting academic freedom.’ It does not enhance the freedom of teachers to teach what they choose and fails to further the goal of ‘teaching all of the evidence.'”

KILLING SCIENCE—The Discovery Institute’s John West told FoxNews.com that the bills do not even mention intelligent design. He said they merely encourage discussion, not outright teaching, of the concept. “We oppose intelligent design mandates,” West said.

West says that the Dicsovery Institute merely wants to see evolutionary theory taught more fully—what creationists say are its strengths and weaknesses. But as their past actions indicate, they want to pry open the door for sympathetic teachers to teach intelligent design and creationism.

While West and the Discovery Institute stress that religious instruction isn’t included in their long-term goals, the sponsors of the bills in the statehouses aren’t always as careful at hiding their agenda. In Louisiana, for example, the lead sponsor of the legislation, Senator Ben Nevers, has been working closely with the Louisiana Family Forum, an organization with a history of attacking the teaching of evolution in the public schools.

“The Louisiana Family Forum suggested the bill,” Nevers told the Hammond Daily Star. “They believe that scientific data related to creationism should be discussed when dealing with Darwin’s theory.” Despite the calculated effort to avoid the term, “creationism” always finds its way back into the debate. Yet creationism, shut out of the public schools since 1987, is not what this new movement says it’s selling.

On the surface, Expelled and the proposed legislation are carefully designed to appeal to such notions as fairness and democratic principles. But it’s clear from watching the movie that the purpose of the campaign is to turn people against evolutionary theory by promoting what might be described as the public’s right to remain ignorant regarding science.

In one scene in the movie, Ben Stein urges Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science, to explain one hypothesis of life’s origins. When Ruse tries to explain one theory of self-replicating crystals, Stein yucks it up over such an idea—”Crystals?”—as he cuts away to a black-and-white shot of a man hovering over a crystal ball. (At the end of the movie, where I saw it, the audience stood up and applauded.)

If there is any question about Stein’s views, and whether he is qualified to promote legislation remotely related to science, he made his position clear in an April 21 radio interview on the Trinity Broadcast Network—billed as “the World’s Largest Christian Network.” In a discussion of his movie’s themes, Stein referred to the Holocaust:

“That’s where science, in my opinion, this is just an opinion, that’s where science leads you. Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place.

“Science leads you to killing people.”

As Stein makes clear, the strategy of the evolution opponents is to attack science. But it also involves something more. It uses fear to attack curiosity. And wonderment.

None of the proposed legislation has yet made it into law, and the Florida and Alabama bills failed to make it to a final vote before the end of the legislative sessions. Still, the Florida Citizens for Science’s Brandon Haught believes that there will be a repeat of the process next year. Next time, he predicts, creationism’s proponents will be more prepared and will launch their bills earlier in the legislative calendar.

Meanwhile, the battlefield’s front lines have shifted from Florida to Louisiana, and Barbara Forrest is now fighting intelligent design in her backyard. “There’s no way to know when it’s going to pop up in your state,” she said.

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