OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ As it did 81 years ago in a small Tennessee town, Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is dividing educators, scholars and theologians as the Oklahoma Legislature debates whether alternative theories on the origin of life should be taught in public school science classes.
Legislation that would authorize teachers to discuss ``the full range of scientific views on the biological or chemical origins of life'' and allow students to express their views in class has been approved by the state House and sent to the Senate.
Supporters, including the measure's author, Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, a former teacher, say it promotes critical thinking by exposing students to all sides of the scientific debate about evolution, a theory they complain is treated as fact in many science books.
The bill does not mandate the teaching of ``intelligent design,'' creationism or other beliefs based on Christian principles. But critics say it is a transparent attempt to bring religion into the classroom by introducing ideas that have their origins in the Bible and are based more on faith than science.
``No teacher needs legislative approval to teach what is the scientifically accepted norms of their discipline,'' said Michael Zimmerman, dean of the College of Letters and Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. To insist on legislation suggests that supporters have an ulterior motive, Zimmerman said.
``The ulterior motive is to introduce material that is outside the norm of the scientific community,'' he said.
``They are determined to use government to force their religious beliefs on everyone else,'' said Keith Smith, lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma.
``If it walks like creation science and it smells like creation science, it is creation science. They just think they can change it and give it a different name and think it will sneak through, and they're wrong,'' Smith said.
Darwin, a British naturalist, introduced his theory of evolution with publication of ``The Origin of Species'' in 1859. It has stirred debate ever since.
The theory holds that variation within species occurs randomly and that the survival or extinction of each organism is determined by that organism's ability to adapt to its environment.
The idea of evolution is in conflict with the convictions of some religious groups. In 1925, high school biology teacher John Scopes was put on trial in Dayton, Tenn., for illegally teaching the theory of evolution in one of the most historic court cases in U.S. history.
More recently, attempts to introduce alternatives to evolution, including intelligent design, have created problems for school districts in other states.
In December, a federal judge blocked attempts to teach intelligent design in high school biology classes in Dover, Pa. Last month, school officials agreed to pay $1 million in legal fees and expenses to plaintiffs who challenged the policy in court.
Intelligent design teaches that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection, according to the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that funds research into non-Darwinian concepts like intelligent design.
Rob Crowther, director of communications, said the institute supports alternative theories and considers intelligent design to be a scientific theory. But the group does not believe it should be required instruction.
``Students need to learn all about evolution,'' Crowther said. ``They should learn the scientific evidence that supports the theory as well as some of the scientific evidence that does not support it.
``I don't think that by teaching both sides of Darwin's theory, you are teaching anything religious,'' he said.
But Zimmerman said there is a growing trend toward repackaging religious viewpoints to give them scientific credibility.
``There are a lot of people who seem to have science envy,'' he said. ``Within the scientific community, there is not an issue. The issue seems to be among those who are not scientists to redefine science.''
``For some people who hold a literal view of the King James version of the bible, modern science poses problems,'' he said. ``Science can't endorse anybody's religion.''
The Rev. Mike Southcombe, pastor of St. John's United Church of Christ in Brighton, Ill., near St. Louis, said intelligent design is a very narrow, literal reading of Biblical scripture that he characterized as ``pseudo science.''
Supporters of intelligent design cite scholarly articles that attack Darwinism and natural selection, but Southcombe said those articles are not peer reviewed, a common academic practice, and have a distorted understanding of evolution.
``The full range of legitimate and broadly accepted scientific thinking is that evolution is well established geologically, anthropologically and biochemically,'' he said. ``You can broaden the range of science as much as you want, but legitimate science will not go beyond the teaching of evolution.''
Oklahoma educators said they are concerned about the legal consequences of exposing students to alternative theories on the origin of life.
``I think it does look perilously close to the line,'' said Keith Ballard, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. ``We have to be very careful where the liability of school board members are concerned.''
``When you're dealing with scientific theory, those things are tested in the classroom,'' said Roy Bishop, president of the Oklahoma Education Association.
``You can't test a faith.''