To listen to the Discovery Institute, Tennessee's "academic freedom" law, which is based on Discovery Institute model legislation, has nothing to do with creationism or religion. "The bill includes a clear statement that it only applies to teaching science and does not protect teaching religion," wrote Casey Luskin, research coordinator at the institute's Center for Science and Culture, on March 20. "Don't expect that to satisfy critics, who will predictably ignore the actual language of the bill and falsely claim it would introduce religion in the classroom."
It's difficult to take these denials seriously, though, given that the language of the model bill and its stated intention of promoting "academic freedom" trace their pedigrees through a series of court battles spanning several decades of creationist efforts to inject religion into public school science classes. The model bill is designed to obviate the legal hurdles raised by previous successful challenges to creationism in the classroom.
The Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture promotes research into "intelligent design" (ID), which it defines as the theory that "certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection." While they are careful to not use explicitly religious language when discussing ID, it is impossible to see the phrase "intelligent cause" and not think "God," or "Creationism." The teaching of creationism in public schools has been banned ever since Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1987. Intelligent design is essentially an attempt to dress up the core tenets of creationism as science in order to sneak it back into the classroom.
That, at least, was the position of Judge John E. Jones of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania when he issued his December 20, 2005, ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, in which parents of public school children in Dover, Pennsylvania sued the school board for requiring that ID be taught alongside Darwinian evolution in science classes. In that ruling, Jones methodically dismantled that case for teaching ID as science, writing: "The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory."
This past Tuesday, Tennessee governor Bill Haslam let become law a controversial "academic freedom" bill that protects teachers who want to "help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught within the curriculum framework." The bill singles out "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning" as examples of the scientific theories whose "weaknesses" are deserving of review.
The inclusion of "biological evolution" should clue you in to what's going on here. The bill's supporters were primarily conservative Christian groups who prefer school children be taught explanations for human development that are less science-y and more Bible-friendly. Faced with daunting legal precedents that ban creationism and its mutant offspring from public schools, they're turning to slickly crafted proposals, like the new Tennessee law, to create an environment in which faith-based critiques of settled evolutionary science can safely creep into the classroom.
One fact that was largely overlooked in the media coverage of the controversy over the Tennessee "academic freedom" bill was that it was based on model legislation crafted by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank that espouses the crypto-creationist theory of "intelligent design."