Education officials in Louisiana yesterday had the opportunity to slam the door firmly on the teaching of creationism and "intelligent design" (ID) in public schools. Unfortunately, they did not take it.
The state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted 10-0 to adopt new science guidelines that critics fear will muddy the waters and open the door to sectarian concepts in science class.
Under pressure from the Louisiana Family Forum, a state-based Religious Right group affiliated with Focus on the Family, the Board voted to strip out language that would have banned teaching "creationism or intelligent design" and the use of materials that "advance the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind."
In addition, the Board – under legislative mandate - approved language allowing teachers to use "supplemental" materials. This was widely perceived as a vehicle to introduce material about creationism or ID into classrooms, since most Biology textbooks don't discuss these pseudo-scientific concepts.
The Board did temper the language somewhat by mandating that any supplemental material used not promote religious doctrine and be "scientifically sound and supported by empirical evidence."
On its face that sounds good, but as usual the devil is in the details. Who is to determine if a certain book, DVD or magazine article is "scientifically sound" and "supported by empirical evidence"?
Promoters of ID insist that their ideas are science, not religion. They have been unable to produce research in peer-reviewed scientific journals, and their ideas are rejected by mainstream scientists. Yet they publish a plethora of books, magazines and other items that they insist are appropriate for classroom use. Will this material be finding its way into Louisiana's public schools?
If it does, there will be a swift response. Americans United represented local parents and litigated against Intelligent Design in Dover, Pa. We won that case and will not hesitate to litigate elsewhere if we find evidence of religion being taught under the guise of science in public schools.
That includes Louisiana. In fact, we'll be watching that state especially closely. This is the place, after all, that has persistently tried to water down instruction about evolution. Remember, Louisiana legislators approved the infamous law requiring "balanced treatment" between evolution and "creation science" that was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1987.
Americans United Trustee Barbara Forrest fought valiantly to improve these standards. Forrest, a professor at Southeastern Louisiana University and co-author of Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, put up a spirited fight but did not prevail. That is unfortunate.
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education had an opportunity to stand up for the children of Louisiana and instill top-flight science standards, standards firmly grounded in science, not religion, that would have helped prepare young people for the challenges of this century.
It's a shame Board members shirked that responsibility and turned their backs on the very people they are supposed to serve: the parents and children of Louisiana.