Louisiana Governor Signs Evolution Bill

By Sean Cavanagh — July 02, 2008 3 min read
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Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has quietly signed into law Senate Bill 733, which allows local education agencies to use supplemental classroom materials that will help students “analyze, critique, and review” scientific theories, including evolution.

The governor’s action was described in a list of 75 bills that he announced he had approved on June 26, with a one-sentence statement that makes no mention of evolution.

The measure, which was sponsored by state Sen. Ben Nevers, a Democrat, and drew overwhelming support from Louisiana’s legislature, specifically states that it is not meant to promote any religious doctrine or belief.

But several scientific organizations believe the law will do just that. One of the leading
scientific societies in the world, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, had urged Jindal to veto the bill, citing the vast amount of scientific evidence backing up evolution and its centrality to students’ understanding of science.

“There is virtually no controversy about evolution among researchers, many of whom like you, are deeply religious,” AAAS President Alan I. Leshner wrote in a letter to the governor. “Rather than step backward,” he added, Louisiana should “look to the future by seeking to provide Louisiana students with a firm understanding of evolution and other essential concepts so they can compete for high-skill jobs in an increasingly high-tech world economy.”

Jindal, a first-term Republican, has seen his national profile rise in recent months, having been mentioned as a potential vice presidential pick of presumptive GOP presidential nominee John McCain.

The new law, titled the Louisiana Science Education Act, says that the state board of education shall “allow and assist” teachers and administrators who want to promote critical thinking of scientific theories “including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” The legislation goes on to state that while teachers are expected to teach the material presented in standard textbooks supplied by their school systems, they can supplement those materials with resources that help students “understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner” unless otherwise prohibited by the state.

As I’ve written, global warming has gradually received more attention in science standards and classroom materials as teachers have sought more resources to talk about the subject. See my previous post on Florida’s inclusion of the topic in its standards.

The impact of the Louisiana law would seem to depend on the actions taken by school districts and individual teachers. Opponents of the law have predicted that it could prompt a wave of lawsuits, if schools or educators seek to denigrate evolution in favor of religious-based views of life’s development, such as creationism, or if they attempt to promote “intelligent design.”

A federal judge in Pennsylvania, in a landmark decision, ruled in 2005 that intelligent design was a religious concept, not a scientific one, and that the Dover, Pa., school district’s attempt to require that students be introduced to it was unconstitutional. One of the judge’s conclusions was that the Dover policy was singling out evolution for special scrutiny or criticism, when the theory is, in fact, one of the foundational principles in all of science.

Louisiana was the setting for a major battle over evolution more than two decades ago. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 struck down a state law that required public schools to balance the teaching of evolution with creationism. The court found that the law violated the First Amendment’s prohibition on government establishment of religion.

In the time since the more recent Dover court fight, bills have emerged in several states that have sought to present critiques of evolution as a matter of “academic freedom.” So far those bills have not gathered the support necessary to make it into law, and they have drawn opposition from scientists, who see them as a backdoor way of promoting attacks on evolution in public school science classes.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.