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Senate passes evolution academic freedom bill, 21-17


TALLAHASSEE (FBW) – The Florida Senate adopted today 21-17 a bill to permit academic freedom for teachers and students addressing evolution in Florida’s public schools.

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During the debate senators on both sides of the evolution divide invoked cultural depictions of America’s evolution debate – from the play “Inherit the Wind,” about the so-called Tennessee Scopes Monkey Trial, to the currently playing documentary film, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.”

The Evolution Academic Freedom Act, SB 2692, sponsored by Sen. Ronda Storms (R-Brandon), was offered in response to new statewide science standards that have been the subject of debate since its release last October, with critics asserting the standards require a dogmatic acceptance of evolution.

Storms, a member of First Baptist Church in Brandon, read e-mail in support of her bill from two teachers who are concerned about the lack of academic freedom in the teaching of evolution.

One teacher, requesting anonymity, told Storms that students who reject evolution are routinely ridiculed by teachers as “religious idiots” and “rednecks.”

“One [teacher] says it’s his duty to free these sheep … from the chains of religion,” the anonymous teacher said in the e-mail message Storms read.

Storms likened such religious ridicule to comments made earlier in the debate by Sen. Steven Geller (D-Hallandale Beach), the minority leader in the Senate.

Geller spoke about his participation in a high school production of “Inherit the Wind” when he and other students laughed “at how backward those folks were” and warned that some day there may be a future play made about the Florida Senate for engaging in an evolution debate in 2008.

Storms also read portions of a three-page e-mail from Wayne Gerber, a Pinellas County science teacher, who noted a biology textbook currently in use in his school includes erroneous information about evolution that remains in the book because it supports evolutionary theory.

“Note, there’s no reference to religion here,” Storms told her colleagues. “This is just a scientific basis for objecting to evolution.”

Geller asked Storms twice whether her bill permitted the teaching of Intelligent Design, revisiting an issue he repeatedly pressed her about during the April 17 floor debate on the bill.

Intelligent Design has been held by one federal court to violate the U.S. Constitution’s first amendment, ruling it is a version of creationism, rather than a valid scientific theory.

Intelligent Design postulates that the intricate design evident in human beings and the natural world undermines Darwinism’s argument of a common ancestry for all living things evolving over billions of years by means of natural selection.

“I know you want me to deviate” from answering with the language of the bill, Storms told Geller, “but I can’t do that because it’s not appropriate.”

Sen. Don Gaetz (R-Fort Walton Beach), however, noted in his comments in support of the bill that Storms answered “no” when he asked during the April 17 debate whether the bill permitted Intelligent Design or creationism.

“And the simple text of the bill supports her answer,” Gaetz told his colleagues.

Gaetz said if the subject matter of the bill was controversial literature, liberals would support it, but since the bill permits differing views on evolution, they oppose the measure.

“There’s nothing wrong with inquiry, there’s nothing wrong with debate, there’s nothing wrong with discussion, and that’s what this bill does. And that’s why it should be supported,” Gaetz said.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner (D-Tampa) insisted the Storms’ bill, contrary to her claims, was indeed about religion.

“What this bill is, is an attempt to bring the controversy of creationism versus evolution into our science classrooms,” she said.

Sen. Stephen Wise (R-Jacksonville), a member of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, said the new documentary film “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” currently in theaters starring Ben Stein, demonstrated the need for academic freedom by featuring credentialed scientists who have lost their jobs or been denied tenure for questioning evolution.

“Students ought to have the opportunity to talk about both sides of the issue,” Wise said.

Sen. Nan Rich (D-Sunrise) said the Senate’s job was to support the experts who wrote Florida’s new science standards, rather than interfere with their work by passing Storms’ bill.

Sen. Daniel Webster (R-Winter Garden), majority leader in the Senate and member of First Baptist Church of Central Florida in Orlando, said the bill encourages the proper question, “Could it be?”

Noting that scientific advancements have come from those who were willing to ask that question, Webster said of teachers and students, “Can’t we ask that question?”

Speaking to his colleagues, Webster said, “Maybe King David was right … when he looked up and said, the heavens declare the glory of God.”

A companion bill in the Florida House of Representatives, HB 1483, was approved by a House council April 11 but differs significantly from Storms’ bill.

In an attempt to reconcile the differences between her bill and the version approved by the Florida House’s Council on Schools and Learning, Storms offered an amendment to replace her two-page bill with the 12-word, one-sentence House bill sponsored by Rep. Alan Hays (R-Umatilla). Hays is a member of First Baptist Church in Umatilla.

Hays’ bill amends the current statute listing “approved methods of instruction” for public school teachers by adding, “A thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution.”

Since the amendment was offered during final consideration of the bill on the Senate floor, a two-thirds majority was needed for passage. The measure failed on a voice vote.

House floor consideration has not been scheduled for HB 1483, but some observers speculate it could occur as early as the end of this week.

In addition to praising Storms for her leadership on the issue, Florida Baptist Convention legislative consultant Bill Bunkley told Florida Baptist Witness he is thankful that Senate President Ken Pruitt (R-Port St. Lucie) scheduled a vote on the controversial issue late in the legislative session, even though it takes more time.

“I cannot emphasize how important his support and leadership was to this legislation moving forward,” Bunkley said of Pruitt.

Bunkley also singled-out Sen. Gary Siplin (D-Orlando) for breaking with his party to support Storms’ bill, calling his vote “exceptional statesmanship.”

Kim Kendall, a stay-at-home mom and activist who has lobbied against the new science standards since October, told the Witness she is “very pleased” with the Senate’s adoption of the academic freedom bill.

“We are very disappointed” Kendall said of her two area senators – Sen. Jim King (R-Jacksonville) and Sen. Tony Hill (D-Jacksonville) – who were unwilling to meet with her and other concerned citizens, in contrast to other senators who ultimately opposed the bill.