TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (BP)–The Florida Senate April 23 adopted by a vote of 21-17 a bill to permit academic freedom for teachers and students addressing evolution in Florida’s public schools. The prospects of the measure remain in doubt after the House sponsor of its academic freedom bill said he will push his significantly different version in the House next week.
During the debate senators on both sides of the evolution divide invoked cultural depictions of America’s evolution debate –- from the play “Inherit the Wind,” about the so-called Tennessee Scopes Monkey Trial, to the currently playing documentary film, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.”
The Evolution Academic Freedom Act, SB 2692, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Ronda Storms, was offered in response to new statewide science standards that have been the subject of debate since their release last October, with critics asserting the standards require a dogmatic acceptance of evolution. A member of First Baptist Church in Brandon, Storms read e-mails in support of her bill from two teachers who are concerned about the lack of academic freedom in the teaching of evolution.
One teacher, requesting anonymity, told Storms that students who reject evolution are routinely ridiculed by teachers as “religious idiots” and “rednecks.”
“One [teacher] says it’s his duty to free these sheep … from the chains of religion,” the anonymous teacher said in the e-mail message Storms read.
Storms likened such religious ridicule to comments made earlier in the debate by Democrat state Sen. Steven Geller, the minority leader in the Senate. Geller spoke about his participation in a high school production of “Inherit the Wind” when he and other students laughed “at how backward those folks were” and warned that some day there may be a future play made about the Florida Senate for engaging in an evolution debate in 2008.
Storms also read portions of a three-page e-mail from Wayne Gerber, a Pinellas County science teacher, who noted a biology textbook currently in use in his school includes erroneous information about evolution that remains in the book because it supports evolutionary theory.
“Note, there’s no reference to religion here,” Storms told her colleagues. “This is just a scientific basis for objecting to evolution.”
Geller asked Storms twice whether her bill permitted the teaching of Intelligent Design, revisiting an issue he repeatedly pressed her about during the April 17 floor debate on the bill. Intelligent Design has been held by one federal judge to violate the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, ruling it is a version of creationism, rather than a valid scientific theory. Intelligent Design postulates that the intricate design evident in human beings and the natural world undermines Darwinism’s argument of a common ancestry for all living things evolving over billions of years by means of natural selection.
“I know you want me to deviate” from answering with the language of the bill, Storms told Geller, “but I can’t do that because it’s not appropriate.”
Republican Sen. Don Gaetz, however, noted in his comments in support of the bill that Storms answered “no” when he asked during the April 17 debate whether the bill permitted Intelligent Design or creationism.
“And the simple text of the bill supports her answer,” Gaetz told his colleagues.
Gaetz said if the subject matter of the bill was controversial literature, liberals would support it, but since the bill permits differing views on evolution, they oppose the measure.
“There’s nothing wrong with inquiry, there’s nothing wrong with debate, there’s nothing wrong with discussion, and that’s what this bill does. And that’s why it should be supported,” Gaetz said.
Democratic Sen. Arthenia Joyner insisted Storms’ bill, contrary to her claims, was indeed about religion.
“What this bill is, is an attempt to bring the controversy of creationism versus evolution into our science classrooms,” she said.
Republican Sen. Stephen Wise, a member of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, said the new documentary film “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” currently in theaters starring Ben Stein, demonstrated the need for academic freedom by featuring credentialed scientists who have lost their jobs or been denied tenure for questioning evolution.
“Students ought to have the opportunity to talk about both sides of the issue,” Wise said.
Republican Sen. Daniel Webster, majority leader in the Senate and member of First Baptist Church of Central Florida in Orlando, said the bill encourages the proper question, “Could it be?” Noting that scientific advancements have come from those who were willing to ask that question, Webster said of teachers and students, “Can’t we ask that question?”
Speaking to his colleagues, Webster said, “Maybe King David was right … when he looked up and said, the heavens declare the glory of God.”
A companion bill in the Florida House of Representatives, HB 1483, was approved by a House council April 11 but differs significantly from Storms’ bill.
HeraldTribune.com reported April 24 that the House sponsor planned to ask his colleagues in the House to vote on his version early next week, leaving just a few days after that to forge a compromise that could be approved by both chambers. Storms warned the legislature is running out of time in its session scheduled to adjourn May 2.
In addition to praising Storms for her leadership on the issue, Florida Baptist Convention legislative consultant Bill Bunkley told the Florida Baptist Witness he is thankful that Republican Senate President Ken Pruitt scheduled a vote on the controversial issue late in the legislative session, even though it takes more time.
“I cannot emphasize how important his support and leadership was to this legislation moving forward,” Bunkley said of Pruitt.
Bunkley also singled out Democrat Sen. Gary Siplin for breaking with his party to support Storms’ bill, calling his vote “exceptional statesmanship.”
Kim Kendall, a stay-at-home mom and activist who has lobbied against the new science standards since October, told the Witness she is “very pleased” with the Senate’s adoption of the academic freedom bill.
James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, online at FloridaBaptistWitness.com