Florida's House and Senate have passed bills that would allow — or require — teachers to present alternate theories of how life evolved. Proponents say the issue is academic freedom. But critics say the bills would introduce religion into public schools.
The Florida House legislation must now return to the Senate, which has already passed a different version of the bill.
Two other states are also looking at the issue, framed as a matter of "academic freedom." That terminology is promoted by the Discovery Institute, a group that backs the teaching of "intelligent design" in classrooms.
The movement is also the subject of the new Ben Stein film, Expelled.
The House bill is called the Evolution Academic Freedom Act. One of its sponsors, Republican state Rep. Alan Hays, says he has a question for its critics.
"What are you afraid of?" Hays asked. "Are you afraid that our students are going to learn how to critically analyze a theory?"
'Thorough Presentation' of Evolution Theory
Florida's House passed the bill by a wide margin Monday. It requires teachers to provide students with "a thorough presentation and scientific critical analysis" of the theory of evolution.
What that analysis would be isn't clear. But proponents say it would have to be scientific, not religious.
Hays said the bill is needed to protect teachers who feel intimidated by school district policies that prevent them from teaching alternate views to the theory of evolution.
Opponents, mostly Democrats like Rep. Franklin Sands, said all the talk about academic freedom is a smokescreen.
"Let's be real clear on what it is that we're actually voting about," Sands said. "We're voting about the separation of church and state. We're voting about teaching religion in the schools. You can couch it any way you want. But that is exactly what we're talking about."
To help clarify that issue, when a similar bill was debated and passed last week in Florida's Senate, opponents introduced an amendment that would allow teachers to present the full range of scientific viewpoints on sex education.
The amendment was quickly voted down.
Model for 'Academic Freedom'
Opponents say the measure sends a negative message to research institutions and biotech companies — a business sector that the state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to promote in Florida.
Hays said he believes that the man behind the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin, would not object to allowing teachers and their students to critically analyze his ideas.
"A true scientist is searching for the truth," Hays said. "And that's what we should be encouraging our students and our teachers in the public schools of this state to search for every day, is search for the truth."
John West of the Discovery Institute said he was pleased by Monday's vote. Based in Seattle, the group promotes intelligent design and has worked to raise questions about evolution.
West says Discovery has written model legislation for states to consider on the issue of "academic freedom."
"That model legislation certainly has influenced debates in various states," West said. "And, in the Senate version of the Florida bill, parts of it were adopted from this model language."
Documenting Intelligence Design Views
Similar bills are also being considered in Louisiana and Missouri. In Florida, the precipitating factor was the adoption earlier this year of science standards for public schools that for the first time mentioned evolution.
And, as that issue was being discussed in Tallahassee, a new film came to town: the controversial documentary film Expelled from conservative economist and social critic Ben Stein.
A sound bite of the film includes a pundit saying of teachers, "If they value their careers, they should keep quiet about their intelligent design views."
Hays, sponsor of the House bill, was among legislators who attended a private screening of Expelled.
Hays said that if people wonder whether there is scientific controversy about the teaching of evolution, they should see the film.
Although Florida's Senate and House have both approved bills encouraging students and teachers to question evolution, it is uncertain whether anything will become law this session.
There are some big differences between the two bills, and there may not be enough time to reconcile them before Florida's legislature adjourns Friday.