Creationists cite ‘academic freedom’ to teach beliefs in schools

Critics say new bill aims to circumvent First Amendment and inject religion into public schools

Donn Chapman turns to Nazi Germany as he passionately declares that freedom in America has been “suppressed” because evolution is taught in public schools, and “anyone who even suggests discussion is exterminated ... academically.”

The pastor of Cornerstone Ministries in Murraysville, Pa., last spring hosted a six-part series, Origins, in which he portrayed the teaching of evolution as a triumph of secularists and “neo-Darwinists” who want “to drive God from the marketplace and ... keep us from being able to give God the glory for what he’s done.”

“We are the spiritual children of the founders of this nation,” Chapman said. “This has been stolen from us. We need to take it back and give it back to God.”

The debate over teaching evolution versus creationism is not about science, Chapman said, but about a clash of worldviews.

At stake is “them (secularists) getting our kids and saying, ‘You feed them, you take them to church on Sunday, but if they’re going to be intelligent, if they are going to get into a good school, they are going to learn to think like us. Heil, Hitler.’ That’s what it’s about.”

Chapman is a promoter of a bill introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature that supporters say will protect “academic freedom” in K-12 public school science classrooms. Similar legislation has passed in two other states, Louisiana in 2008 and Tennessee in 2012, but has been tabled or died in others, including Kansas, Montana, Arizona, Oklahoma, Colorado and Indiana.

Science educators say using the term “academic freedom” is a ploy for injecting religious belief into public school science classes, contrary to the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits government endorsement of a particular religion. In states where such legislation has passed, little is known about how it affects the classroom, but science educators worry it will erode vigorous teaching of evolution, climate change and other topics.

“If you look through the history of creationist legislation, academic freedom has always been the purported secular basis for the laws that were passed,” said Joshua Rosenau, programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education. “This has always been part of that rhetoric, and they’ve always lost.”

'Religious doctrine'

In a 1987 case, Edwards v. Aguillard, the Supreme Court invalidated Louisiana’s Balanced Treatment Act, which required teaching creationism alongside evolution, citing academic freedom. The court held that the act did not advance academic freedom “but has the distinctly different purpose of discrediting” evolution. Because its “primary purpose” was “to endorse a particular religious doctrine,” it violated the separation of church and state.

By passing these new “academic freedom” laws, legislators are “trying to change what academic freedom means,” Rosenau said.

One of the books on creationism published by the Discovery Institute.

This new batch of so-called academic-freedom initiatives is the brainchild of the Discovery Institute, a think tank that promotes “intelligent design,” a dogma aimed at undermining the science of evolution by maintaining that because too many questions surround evolutionary theory, the creation of the universe must be explained by an intelligent or divine hand. These bills have won support from conservative Christian advocacy groups, including the Louisiana Family Forum, the Family Action Council of Tennessee and the Pennsylvania Family Institute.

Eight years ago, the teaching of “intelligent design” in the Dover, Pa., school district was ruled unconstitutional in a landmark case. In Kitzmiller v. Dover Independent School District, a federal court held that the teaching of “intelligent design” in public schools violated the establishment clause’s prohibition on government endorsement of religion because it “aspires to change the ground rules of science to make room for religion, specifically, beliefs consonant with a particular version of Christianity.”

“They’ve had to change their approach after Dover,” said Barbara Forrest, a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University and a co-founder of the Louisiana Coalition for Science. The “academic freedom” bills, she said, are “a ruse for promoting creationism.”

The “academic freedom” bills are the “niche” of the Discovery Institute, said Joshua Youngkin, its program officer on public policy.

Youngkin said the Discovery Institute helped lawmakers in Louisiana and Tennessee “with how to discuss the bill.” He said that his group comes in as “constitutional-law experts” with “access to science-education experts,” and that the group is playing a similar role in Pennsylvania.

We know this law is encouraging teachers to undermine evolution and teach creationism.

As in other states, the bill in Pennsylvania asserts that the teaching of scientific subjects, including evolution, climate change and human cloning can “cause controversy.” If passed, the bill would require school districts and administrators to “promote an environment” that would “encourage” students to “develop critical thinking skills and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion on controversial issues.” The districts and administrators would have to assist teachers to “help students understand, analyze, critique and review” the “strengths and weaknesses” of “scientific theories” being taught.

Rosenau questioned what the bill’s use of “critical thinking” means.

“If I’m a student … and every time the teacher talks about global warming, I put my hand up in the air and say, ‘That’s not real,’ or every time the teacher says, ‘Billions of years ago,’ I say, ‘Don’t you mean 6,000 years ago?’ am I being disruptive, or am I engaging in ‘critical thinking’?”

Avoiding the topic

Youngkin maintained that the “plain language” of the bills prohibits teachers from “going into religion.” The legislation does not, he said, permit teachers to deviate from mandated curricula. But, he said, “teachers are unsure of their rights on science controversy. The law does a great deal of relieving that chill,” making teachers less afraid of teaching what the Discovery Institute calls scientific controversy on topics such as evolution and climate change.

State Rep. Rick Saccone, a Republican co-sponsor of the Pennsylvania bill, said teachers tell him they avoid topics such as evolution and climate change “because we can’t speak about them freely.”

But a 2011 study of high school biology teachers by political scientists Michael B. Berkman and Eric Plutzer at Penn State University suggests not that pro-creationist teachers feel reluctant to express their views, but that too many teachers fear backlash in conservative communities for teaching evolution. What’s more, they concluded, too many lack the resources or educational background to defend it.

The study found “a pervasive reluctance of teachers to forthrightly explain evolutionary biology,” with only 28 percent of teachers teaching it according to current standards, 13 percent advocating “intelligent design” or creationism and 60 percent avoiding the topic.

Both Youngkin and Saccone spoke at Chapman’s Origins class. Although Saccone said in an interview that the “academic freedom” bill had nothing to do with religion, he told the Origins class, “God is part of our government. We just need to get the word out. We, too, can turn back to our godly heritage.”

It has been difficult to measure the impact of the Louisiana and Tennessee laws in the classroom.

“We know this law is encouraging teachers to undermine evolution and teach creationism,” said Zack Kopplin, an activist who gained notoriety when he launched a campaign against the Louisiana Science Education Act as a Baton Rouge high school student. Kopplin graduated in 2011 and continues to advocate for the law’s repeal.

But to know more, he said, a student would have to come forward “who knows their rights are being violated, is brave and knows the proper path to go” to complain.

Becky Ashe, a former president of the Tennessee Science Teachers Association and a teacher in the Knox County public schools, said little has changed since the state’s law went into effect.

“In my system in East Tennessee, we have not seen a difference in the treatment of topics in the classroom since the passage of that bill,” she said. “Conscientious science teachers were objective in their treatment before and are objective now.”

At Chapman’s Origins class, Youngkin encouraged the audience to generate interest in a bill by writing op-eds and letters to newspapers. Even if the bill doesn’t pass, he said, “just by raising the issue … you’re giving a weighty matter the respect it deserves.”

Andy Hoover, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which opposes the bill, seems optimistic the bill won’t pass there.

“There is a bloc of very conservative members that would probably be supportive,” he said. But the legislature “knows it has some very serious issues to deal with. This certainly can’t be one of them.”

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