"Academic freedom" bill passes Senate committee
By DAVID DECAMP
Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE — A Senate panel endorsed “protections” Wednesday for students and teachers who offer alternative theories to evolution — despite a report saying there’s never been a case alleging such discrimination in Florida.
Sen. Ronda Storms’ “academic freedom” bill, which won a 4-1 vote by an education committee, says teachers cannot be punished or denied tenure if they “objectively” present scientific information, even if it questions evolution. Students receive the same shield in their coursework.
“It’s interesting for me to note that the only folks who have brought up religion today have been those in opposition,” said Storms, R-Valrico, who suggested the bill helps foster critical thinking, not faith-based teaching.
The bill (SB 2692/HB 1483) has prompted stiff defense by cultural conservatives, and equally stiff objections from scientists and the American Civil Liberties Union — and renewed the debate over evolution and creationism in schools. The bill was introduced after the State Board of Education voted 4-3 last month to adopt new science standards that embrace evolution, but refer to it as a “scientific theory.”
But there has never been a case where a teacher or student has complained they were discriminated against because of science teaching or coursework, according to a Senate staff analysis. Storms, a former teacher, said they were afraid to come forward. Asked about the cases, she quoted messages she received that attacked her for the bill.
The analysis also warned that the ambiguous definition on key terms could expose teachers and districts to lawsuits. And the bill does not define who determines the objectivity of scientific information presented to students.
In fact, ACLU lobbyist Courtenay Strickland said if schools act on the bill, the civil liberties group would sue, as it did in a landmark Pennsylvania case that rejected creationism.
“The purpose of the bill as explained was to ensure that students couldn’t be punished for raising scientific objections to evolution. We didn’t hear from anyone today that suggested there were any kind repercussions for questioning evolution with science,” said Sen. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, the lone dissent.
Sens. Lisa Carlton, Alex Diaz de la Portilla, Steve Wise, and Larcenia Bullard voted for it. Committee Chairman Don Gaetz and Vice Chairwoman Frederica Wilson were absent.
But Bullard, the lone supportive Democrat, had reservations. And she said she might not support it if a final Senate vote is taken.
“This is very confusing to me because I believe this is going to open the door for some serious problems in the public school system,” said Bullard, of Miami.
The bill still has to be approved by the Senate judiciary committee before a full Senate vote. The House bill, sponsored by Alan Hayes, R-Umatilla, hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing.
Scientists like University of South Florida professor Robert Meisels, who helped write the new science standards, said the bill is unnecessary and reflected a back-door attempt to allow faith-based ideology into science classes — where it doesn’t belong.
But John Stemberger, of the Florida Family Policy Council, countered, “There is significant debate – legitimate scientific debate – over the value of Darwinism.