Committee Defeats Science Education Bill

Monday, February 16th 2009, 4:29 pm
By: News On 6

By Dan Bewley and Terry Hood, The News On 6

TULSA, OK -- A senate committee narrowly shoots down a bill to promote classroom discussion of alternative theories to evolution, along with other topics where science conflicts with religious or moral viewpoints.

The Academic Freedom bill would have allowed public school teachers to talk about controversial subjects, such as evolution, without fear for their jobs.  Oklahoma is the latest state to tackle the issue of evolution.

Senate Bill 320 is directed at Oklahoma's public schools.  Its author, Owasso Senator Randy Brogdon, says the bill is needed to protect public school teachers and improve students' critical thinking.  Dr. Dominic Halsmer is ORU's Dean of Science and Engineering.

"If you have the freedom to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories, help your students to think about those theories, not only the assumptions that go into those theories but the implications of those theories, I think that's good for the students," said ORU Dean of Science Dr. Dominic Halsmer.

Oklahoma's bill is similar to at least six other academic freedom bills introduced nationwide, including Florida, Alabama, and Missouri.  The first to pass was last year in Louisiana.

All of the bills say the students and teachers need to be free to talk about strengths and weaknesses of the theories of the origins of life.  Each bill also has a provision that says it's not promoting a specific religion.

 "I think it's code if we look at it to teach, sort of a half-baked creationism," said Paul Ashby with Fellowship Congregational Church.

Dr. Paul Ashby is the senior minister at Fellowship Congregational Church in Tulsa.  He says you have to look at the history of academic freedom to get a better idea of what the bill means.

He points to the Discovery Institute, a Seattle based think-tank that supports Intelligent Design, a theory that proposes life is too complex to have evolved without help from an intelligent cause.

The institute has also created a model academic freedom bill for states to follow.  It has similar phrases to Oklahoma's bill, such as the need to protect students and teachers when talking about evolution.

Institute spokesman Casey Luskin tells The News On 6 academic freedom is about science, not religion, saying the goal is for "teachers to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of evolution without getting into the discussion of Intelligent Design."

But, opponents say the Institute is using double-speak to get religion in the classroom.

"I find the bill to be dishonest because it's more about bad religion than it is about good science," said Paul Ashby with Fellowship Congregational Church.

They point to this document, called the "Wedge" which lays out the Discovery Institute's long term goals.

In 20 years, the goal is "to see intelligent design as the dominant perspective in science."  

Still, ORU's Dr. Halsmer says the bill's important to give students a better understanding of science.

"Science does have implications and I think it's important students investigate those implications," said Dr. Dominic Halsmer with ORU.

Although the Academic Freedom Bill did not pass on Monday, the vote in the Senate Education Committee was close at seven to six.