TALLAHASSEE — This week's private screening of a controversial evolution documentary by pop culture icon Ben Stein was a subdued affair, with a handful of lawmakers, including Tampa Rep. Kevin Ambler, attending the downtown event and no protesters showing up.
But a short walk away in the Capitol, Brandon Sen. Ronda Storms and fellow Republican Rep. Alan Hays are proposing legislation that promises to keep alive the evolution vs. creationism debate that engulfed the State Board of Education in recent months.
The "Academic Freedom Act" would give K-12 public school teachers "the affirmative right and freedom" to present the "full range" of scientific views regarding biological and chemical evolution.
The bill specifies that the intent is not to promote any "religious doctrine" or to promote discrimination for or against any religious beliefs.
Still, the legislation is likely to cause a stir, given the high emotions connected to any conversation about the origins of man and the universe.
"This is going to be very contentious and divisive," said Democratic Sen. Frederica Wilson, a former Miami-Dade School Board member. "It's going to split us at a time when we need to be together. We have bigger problems."
Other lawmakers wonder whether students in grade school are mature enough to take in and really comprehend alternative theories like creationism or intelligent design.
House Speaker Marco Rubio said there can be "valid debates on Darwin." But he said there's a reason teachers are held to a standard curriculum for K-12.
"It seems to me the movie and the issue applies more in the higher education setting," Rubio said.
Storms, a former high school English teacher, said she believes "evolution should be taught" in K-12.
But she also wants classrooms to foster "legitimate scientific inquiry, where the theories and criticisms of those theories are laid out there for discussion."
"We're not espousing a religious position or belief," Storms said. "But the students, after having heard all the evidence, should be able to arrive at their own conclusions. And to do that, they have to have all the information."
Under the proposal (SB 2692 and HB 1483), a teacher could not be penalized for "objectively presenting" such information, even if it questions biological evolution and tells students about alternative theories.
The Senate has not yet scheduled the bill for a committee, but the House Schools and Learning Council will take up the matter soon. 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."
It was an attempt to assuage critics of the original proposal that defined evolution as "the fundamental concept underlying all of biology" and one "supported by multiple forms of scientific evidence."
Some Republican lawmakers later said the "scientific theory" wording leaves open a window for teachers to present other theories that challenge evolution.
"I think what the board did reflects a thoughtful approach," said Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. "I don't think any legislation would follow up on that."
But Storms and Hays say legislation is needed to protect from "persecution" the teachers and students who want to explore other ideas.
"Our teachers need to be able to lead students … in an intellectual analysis of Darwin's theory, without fear of harassment," said Rep. Hays, an Umatilla dentist and self-described Baptist like Storms.
The bills reflect model legislation suggested last month by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle center long associated with intelligent design, the theory that posits some systems are too complicated to have been created by chance through evolution.
Hays helped organize Wednesday night's screening of Stein's documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, for lawmakers, staff and family at Tallahassee's IMAX theater.
The film, which will be released nationwide on April 18, has Stein traversing the globe to demonstrate that educators and scientists are being ostracized for their doubts about Darwinism.
Stein narrates the trailer and the film. "Everything that exists was created by a loving God," he says. "That includes rocks, trees, animals, people. But some intelligent people think the universe is the result of random particle collision and chemical reactions."
Sen. Don Gaetz, the Panhandle Republican who chairs the K-12 committee, said he will most likely schedule Storms' bill for consideration.
"I had hoped the Board of Education would resolve the scientific standards, but obviously the pot is still boiling," said Gaetz, former Okaloosa school superintendent.
Still, he is cautious.
"I just hope we don't have the second rendition of the Scopes Monkey trial," said Gaetz, a self-described Christian, "I don't think her bill does that. If she wants to truly encourage discussion and debate, then I can be supportive. If it turns into a prescription for a certain religious doctrine, then I have to oppose the bill."
Staff writers David DeCamp and Ron Matus contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.