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The Florida legislature has been considering evolution. State lawmakers have passed bills that would allow or require teachers to present alternate theories of how life evolved. Proponents say at issue is academic freedom. Critics say the bills would introduce religion into public schools.
NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami.
GREG ALLEN: It's titled The Evolution Academic Freedom Act, and here's one of its sponsors, Republican State Representative Alan Hays.
State Representative ALAN HAYS (Republican, Florida): What are you afraid of? Are you afraid that our students are going to learn how to critically analyze a theory?
ALLEN: The bill passed by a wide margin in Florida's House on Monday. It requires teachers to provide their students with, quote, "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 says it was 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 Representative Franklin Sands, said all the talk about academic freedom is a smoke screen.
State Representative FRANKLIN SANDS (Democrat, Florida): Let's be real clear on what it is that we're actually voting about. We're voting about the separation of church and state. We're voting about teaching religion in schools. You can couch it anyway you want, but that is exactly what we're talking about.
ALLEN: To help clarify that issue, last week when a similar bill was debated and passed in Florida's Senate, opponents introduced an amendment that would allow teachers to represent the full range of scientific viewpoints on sex education. That amendment was quickly voted down.
Opponents say the measure sends a negative message to research institutions and biotech companies, a business sector the state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to promote in Florida.
Representative Hays said he believed the man behind the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin, would not object to allowing teachers and their students critically analyze his ideas.
Rep. HAYS: A true scientist is searching for the truth, 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, to search for the truth.
ALLEN: One of those pleased by yesterday's vote was John West of the Discovery Institute. That's a group based in Seattle that promotes intelligent design, and has long worked to raise questions about evolution. West says Discovery has written model legislation on this issue of academic freedom for states to consider.
Dr. JOHN WEST (Discovery Institute): And that model legislation certainly has influenced debates in various states, and in the Senate version of the Florida bill, parts of it were adapted from this model language.
ALLEN: 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 idea was being discussed in Tallahassee, a new film came to town.
(Soundbite of movie, "Expelled")
Mr. BEN STEIN (Conservative Economist and Social Critic): I made a movie.
(Soundbite of movie)
Unidentified Man #1: Join Ben Stein in this year's most controversial documentary film.
Unidentified Man #2: If they value their careers, they should keep quiet about their intelligent design views.
(Soundbite of banging sound)
ALLEN: The sponsor of the bill in the House, Alan Hays, was one of the legislators who attended a private screening of "Expelled," a movie by conservative economist and social critic Ben Stein. Hays says that people wonder if there's a scientific controversy about the teaching of evolution, they should see the film.
Although both Florida's Senate and House have now approved bills encouraging students and teachers to question evolution, it's uncertain that 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 on Friday.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.