It’s ironic that just as the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation was praising Indiana for having some of the best science education standards in the country, the Indiana Senate was debating legislation to authorize the teaching of “creation science.”
Fortunately, an amendment offered by Bloomington Democrat Vi Simpson made the legislation relatively harmless, at least for now. But who knows what may happen when it moves to the House for further consideration?
As introduced by Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, Senate Bill 89 would have let school boards mandate the teaching of “various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science,” which claims to provide scientific support for the creation story in the book of Genesis.
According to Suzanne Eckes, an education law expert at the Indiana University School of Education, that would be an invitation to a lawsuit, and one the school would probably lose.
“The law is fairly settled in this area,” she said, pointing out that the U.S. Supreme Court has twice ruled that teaching creationism in public schools violates the First Amendment’s ban on the establishment of religion. The decisions were Epperson v. Arkansas in 1968 and Edwards v. Aguillard (from Louisiana) in 1987.
Kruse told Scott Elliott of the Indianapolis Star that the Supreme Court has changed since 1987 and it could rule differently today. Maybe, but as recently as 2005, federal courts ruled against teaching creationism in Selman v. Cobb (from Georgia) and Kitzmiller v. Dover (Pennsylvania).
And any school district that wants to put the courts to the test had better have deep pockets. The Dover Area School Board reportedly paid $1 million in costs and legal fees to the parents and students who sued over the teaching of “intelligent design,” which the judge found to be another term for creationism.
Simpson’s amendment changed the legislation to say a school “may offer instruction on various theories of the origin of life,” and if it does, the curriculum “must include theories from multiple religions.” The Senate approved the amended bill, 28-22, with a majority of Republicans voting in favor and most Democrats, including Simpson, voting no.
The amendment could help the legislation pass constitutional muster, Eckes said, because a school couldn’t favor one religion. But it could still be problematic if religious views were taught in science classes. Creation stories from various religious traditions could, of course, be explained in a class on world religions or literature of the Bible. But that can happen now – it doesn’t take legislation.
Teaching creationism in a science class would be not only constitutionally suspect but a serious departure from Indiana’s science education standards, which convey that science involves knowledge that is tested by observation and investigation, not accepted on faith.
The Fordham Institute’s State of State Science Standards report, released Tuesday, gives Indiana an A-minus for its standards, which it calls “clear and rigorous.” Indiana is one of only six states to get an A or A-minus in the report, which says that state science standards “remain mediocre to awful” overall – 75 percent of states get a C or lower, and a majority get Ds and Fs.
The report does fault Indiana’s K-8 life-science standards for failing to use the terms “evolution,” “natural selection” and “common ancestry,” but adds that “the coverage of evolution at the high school level is excellent.”