Alabama legislature lets SB336 die without a vote

by Nick Matzke

On May 17, the final day of the 2004 legislative session, the Alabama state House adjourned without voting on SB336, a bill that would have allowed Alabama's teachers to present "alternative theories" of "biological or physical origins." Although SB336 was on the agenda for the final day, negotiations on the annual budget lasted into the evening, and the legislature adjourned at 10 p.m. without considering several controversial bills.

SB336, dubbed the "Academic Freedom Act" by sponsors, was originally designed to protect the right of teachers to present "scientific, historical, theoretical, or evidentiary information pertaining to alternative theories or points of view on the subject of biological or physical origins." SB336 was passed by unanimous votes by the Senate Education Committee on March 11 and full Senate on April 8. The bill then went to the House Education Committee, which substituted a slightly modified version of the bill that replaced the "alternative theories" language with language protecting the presentation of only "scientific information" on the "full range of scientific views." The substituted bill was passed 9-1 by the committee on April 29.

The "full range of scientific views" language is apparently derived from the modified "Santorum Amendment" language present in the conference report of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The Santorum Amendment encouraged a "teach the controversy" approach to evolution education. The amendment was passed by the U.S. Senate, but was left out of the final version of the Act, and remains only in highly modified form in the conference report (see the NCSE Compilation on the Santorum Amendment). The conference report language is commonly touted by the Discovery Institute, an antievolution thinktank based in Seattle, as model language for antievolutionary bills and curricula. The Discovery Institute issued a press release on May 10 supporting the revised version of SB336, and on May 14, it posted a "Legal Analysis of the Alabama House Substitute for SB 336." The analysis, by DI fellows and staff, argued that the revised version of SB336 would meet constitutional criteria established by the courts in previous creationism/evolution cases.

The Discovery Institute's probable influence with the sponsors of SB336 is shown by comparing two statements by state Senator Wendell Mitchell, the lead sponsor of SB336. On February 18, 2004, Mitchell was quoted as saying, "I think there is a tremendous ill-balance in the classroom when you can't discuss all viewpoints. This bill will level the playing field because it allows a teacher to bring forward the biblical creation story of humankind." However, on May 16, Mitchell was quoted as saying, "We are trying to address this in terms of the full range of scientific view [sic]...We are trying to take every step we can to ensure that the people who are operating under this legislation are not challenged on the idea it is a religious effort."

Other links: