Creationist School Bill Looks Doomed in Indiana

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

Legislators in Indiana appear to have fallen short of their goal of injecting creationism into U.S. public schools, at least for this year. However, they did deploy a few new tactics in the never-ending assault on evolutionary theory by religious fundamentalists.

On Tuesday the Indiana Senate approved a bill, S.B. 89, that would have allowed schools to teach "various theories on the origins of life." It didn't specify whether the instruction should occur in a science class or in another setting, but its sponsors made clear that they saw it as a way to challenge prevailing views on scientific evolution. The bill, which passed 28 to 22, drew widespread media coverage and triggered condemnations from scientific organizations in the state and across the country.

The original measure had mentioned "creation science" as one idea that could be taught. But before the vote it was amended to require that teachers also discuss "theories from multiple religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Scientology."

The next day, however, the speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives decided that the legislation, which had triggered national media coverage, had become too hot to handle. As reported by Dan Carden of the The Times of Northwest Indiana, House Speaker Brian Bosma, a Republican from Indianapolis, said at a press availability on Wednesday that "delving into an issue that the U.S. Supreme Court has, on at least one occasion, said is not compliant with the Constitution may be a side issue and someplace where we don't need to go." He was apparently referring to a 1987 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that a Louisiana state law requiring the teaching of creation science violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment by advancing religion.

Republicans control both houses of the Indiana legislature. But the amendment to include other religions actually came from a Democrat, state Senator Vi Simpson, from Bloomington, home of Indiana University. Simpson told the Associated Press earlier this week that she hoped local school boards would think twice about sanctioning such a lesson if its religious connections were put front and center. "It does make it clear that a school board can't just say we're only going to teach Christian creation theory," she said. The bill's sponsor, Republican state Senator Dennis Kruse, told AP that he didn't like the change but hoped it would gain him some votes.

State education officials said that they have no plans to prepare a curriculum for such a course and that it would not be part of the state standards that teachers are expected to cover. Any decision to implement such instruction would be left to individual districts, they added. "That means to me they don't want to touch it with a 10-foot pole," says John Staver, co-director of the Center for Research and Engagement in Science and Math Education at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Staver had testified against the bill at a Senate hearing and says he plans to do likewise if it does come before the House.

That prospect seems unlikely after Bosma's comments, however. Any legislation would have to go through committee and clear the full House by 5 March.

Posted in Education