Senate Bill 561, styled the "Louisiana Academic Freedom Act," was prefiled in the Louisiana Senate by state senator Ben Nevers (D–District 12) on March 21, 2008, and provisionally assigned to the Senate Education Committee, of which Nevers is the chair. In name, the bill is similar to the so-called academic freedom bills in Florida, House Bill 1483 and Senate Bill 2692, which are evidently based on a string of similar bills in Alabama as well as on a model bill that the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, the institutional home of "intelligent design" creationism, recently began to promote. But in its content, Louisiana's SB 561 seems to be modeled instead on a controversial policy adopted by a local school board in 2006 with the backing of the Louisiana Family Forum.
The Ouachita Parish School Board's policy permits teachers to help students to understand "the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught"; "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning" are the only topics specifically mentioned. A local paper editorially described it as "a policy that is so clear that one School Board member voted affirmatively while adding, 'but I don't know what I'm voting on'" (Monroe News-Star, 2006 Dec 3; see RNCSE 2006 Nov/Dec; 26 : 8–11).
The controversy over the policy was renewed in September 2007, when Senator David Vitter (R–Louisiana) sought to earmark $100 000 of federal funds to the Louisiana Family Forum. The New Orleans Times-Picayune (2007 Sep 22) reported that the money was intended to "pay for a report suggesting 'improvements' in science education in Louisiana, the development and distribution of educational materials and an evaluation of the effectiveness of the Ouachita Parish School Board's 2006 policy that opened the door to biblically inspired teachings in science classes." Thanks to pressure from NCSE and its allies, Vitter withdrew his proposal in the following month (see RNCSE 2007 Sep–Dec; 27 [5–6]: 9–12).
Now SB 561 echoes the central language of the Ouachita Parish School Board's policy. Contending that "the teaching of some scientific subjects, such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy, and that some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects," the bill extends permission to Louisiana's teachers to "help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught."
Unlike the policy, the bill contains directives aimed at state and local education administrators, who are instructed to "endeavor to create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, to help students develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues" and to "endeavor to assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies." Administrators are also instructed not to "censor or suppress in any way any writing, document, record, or other content of any material which references" the listed topics.
Attempting to immunize itself against a likely challenge to its constitutionality, the bill also claims to protect only "the teaching of scientific information," adding that it "shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion." The involvement of the Louisiana Family Forum — which seeks to "persuasively present biblical principles in the centers of influence on issues affecting the family through research, communication and networking" — managed, however, to provoke a careful scrutiny of the intent of the bill's backers.
Writing in the Times-Picayune (2008 Mar 30), the columnist James Gill observed that SB 561 is based on "the spurious premise that evolution is a matter of serious scientific debate and that both sides are entitled to a hearing. A lot of people have fallen for that line, including Gov Bobby Jindal, although, of course, scientists, save a few stray zealots, regard the evidence for evolution as overwhelming." He also drew attention to a particularly problematic provision of SB 561 directing administrators not to "censor or suppress in any way any writing, document, record, or other content of any material"referring to the topics covered by the bill, which he described as "a license for crackpots." Gill concluded, "The bill is of no conceivable benefit to anyone but Christian proselytizers. Besides, its genesis is plainly sectarian."
A day after the legislative session began on March 31, 2008, the sponsor of SB 561 was in the news, denying that the so-called academic freedom bill would pave the way for creationism to be taught in the state's public schools. According to the Baton Rouge Advocate (2008 Apr 1), Nevers said, "I believe that students should be exposed to both sides of scientific data and allow them to make their own decisions," adding, "I think the bill perfectly explains that it deals with any scientific subject matter which is taught in our public school system." The bill in fact specifically identifies "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning" as controversial subjects, and calls on state and local education administrators to "endeavor to assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies."
Nevers acknowledged that he introduced SB 561 at the behest of the Louisiana Family Forum. A religious right group with a long history of promoting creationism and attacking evolution education in the state, the LFF claims that it "promotes 'Teaching the Controversy' when it comes to matters such as biologicial [sic] evolution"; yet it elsewhere recommends a variety of young-earth and "intelligent design" websites, including the Institute for Creation Research, the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, and Kent Hovind's Creation Science Evangelism, on its own website. Unsurprisingly, then, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Reverend Barry Lynn, told the Advocate, "This is all about God in biology class."
Speaking later to the Hammond Daily Star (2008 Aprl 6), Nevers was less cautious in explaining the purpose of the bill. The newspaper reported, "The Louisiana Family Forum suggested the bill, Nevers said. 'They believe that scientific data related to creationism should be discussed when dealing with Darwin's theory. This would allow the discussion of scientific facts,' Nevers said. 'I feel the students should know there are weaknesses and strengths in both scientific arguments.'" The article itself was headlined "Bill allows teaching creationism as science."
Barbara Forrest, a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University who serves on NCSE's board of directors, told the Daily Star, "If the citizens and public officials of Louisiana are serious about improving both the state's image and public schools, we cannot afford to waste valuable time and resources on legislation like SB 561. Such battles consume the energies and attention of productive citizens who must take time from their jobs and personal affairs to counteract creationist attacks on their school systems."
Before the bill received a committee hearing, the Shreveport Times (2008 Apr 14) took a firm editorial stand against it, writing, "Even though it is presented with an attractive title and couched in the newest terms, Senate Bill 561 is not in the best interest of students, educators or religious leaders. It would open the door for high school science class curricula and discussions concerning matters best left to individual faith, families and religious institutions. The bill proposes bad law that has been tried before and has been struck down repeatedly by the courts," and concluding, "Religious doctrine and the science classroom must remain separate, and SB 561 should be ditched in committee."
But it was not to be. Renamed the "Louisiana Science Education Act," the bill passed the Louisiana Senate Education Committee on April 17, 2008, despite the testimony of what the Times-Picayune (2008 Apr 18) described as "a bank of witnesses" who "blasted the proposed Louisiana Science Education Act as a back-door attempt to inject the biblical story of creation into the classroom." The Advocate (2008 Apr 18) reported that William Hansel, a scientist at Louisiana State University's Pennington Biomedical Research Center, told the committee, "nearly all scientists oppose passage of this bill," adding that if enacted, the bill "will be seized upon as one more piece of evidence that Louisiana is a backward state by those who have popularized this image of our state."
Before its passage, the bill was not only renamed but also renumbered (as SB 733) and revised, with the removal of the "strengths and weaknesses" language and the list of specific scientific topics. Even the sanitized version of the bill is likely to continue to spark controversy, owing to its creationist antecedents, from which its supporters may be unable to disentangle themselves. For example, David Tate, a supporter of the bill who serves on the Livingston Parish School Board, told the Times-Picayune, "I believe that both sides — the creationism side and the evolution side — should be presented and let students decide what they believe," and added that the bill is needed because "teachers are scared to talk about" creation.
The Advocate (2008 Apr 19) editorially agreed that the antecedents of the bill were problematic, writing, "it seems clear that the supporters of this legislation are seeking a way to get creationism — the story of creation as told in the biblical book of Genesis — into science classrooms." Acknowledging the revisions of the bill, the editorial commented, "At this point, the wording of the bill seems more symbol than substance. But its implication — that real science is somehow being stifled in Louisiana's classrooms — does not seem grounded in actual fact. This kind of rhetorical grandstanding is a needless distraction from the real problems the Legislature should be addressing."
Speaking to the Advocate (2008 Apr 20), the executive director of the Louisiana Family Forum, Gene Mills, expressed disappointment at the revisions to the bill: "We want an explicit expression," he said. "We wanted to hang out a sign that said academic inquiries welcomed." He described his support of the revised bill as now only lukewarm, even though Nevers told the newspaper that the revisions "didn't change the intent of the bill." However, Barbara Forrest commented, "The bill itself is still a very problematic bill, a stealth creationism bill," explaining, "The strategy now is to sanitize the terminology, which is what they did with the original bill and which they are doing now."
Subsequently, however, the bill was partly unsanitized. As the Advocate (2008 Apr 29) reported, "In a key change, the Senate approved an amendment by Nevers that spells out examples of those theories, including evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning. That language was removed from the bill earlier this month at the request of critics before it was approved by the Senate Education Committee, which Nevers chairs." Also added was a provision requiring teachers to use the textbook provided by the local school system; it was apparently feared that otherwise teachers might use only the supplemental textbooks that the bill would, if enacted, allow them to use "to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner." The language about "strengths and weaknesses" was not restored. The Senate passed the amended bill by a vote of 35 to 0.
SB 733 was sent to the House of Representatives on April 29, 2008, and referred to its Committee on Education. A version of the same bill, HB 1168, was previously introduced in the House on April 21, 2008, and referred to the same committee. Its sponsor, Frank A Hoffman (R–District 15) was formerly the assistant superintendent of the Ouachita Parish School System, which in 2006 adopted the controversial policy on which HB 1168 and SB 561/733 are based. The Advocate (2008 May 1) expressed editorial concern about the prospects of the legislation, writing, "The 35–0 vote on this issue suggests few senators have the inclination or will to stand up to the religious right in defense of sound science in the classroom. It's quite possible this bill also will be approved in the House and end up on [Governor Bobby] Jindal's desk."