West Virginia governor signs vague law allowing teachers to answer questions about origin of life

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Republican Gov. Jim Justice signed a law Friday that supporters say promotes the free exchange of ideas in science classrooms, despite objections from opponents who said the vaguely worded measure could allow for the incursion of religion into public schools.

The legislation allows public school teachers to answer student questions “about scientific theories of how the universe and/or life came to exist.”


It was proposed after Republican Senate Education Chair Amy Grady, a public school teacher, said fellow educators have told her they don’t feel comfortable answering questions about theories outside evolution because they don’t know if doing so is permissible.

Speaking to the bill on the Senate floor in January, Grady said the bill is meant to clarify how teachers can approach these situations.

“This says, ‘If a student asks you questions about a theory that they’ve read about or they’ve heard about — maybe it’s not a popular theory, but a theory — you can discuss it,’” she said.

She said the bill is “encouraging our students to think, encouraging our students to ask questions, encouraging our teachers to be able to answer them.”

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice delivers his State of the State address, Jan. 10, 2024, in Charleston, W. Va. Justice signed a law concerning science teaching on Friday, March 22, 2024. Supporters say it promotes the free exchange of ideas in the classroom and opponents say it is constitutionally vague and could allow for the incursion of religion into public schools.  (AP Photo/Chris Jackson)

What is unclear is what kinds of teaching would be protected by the bill, which does not define what a “scientific theory” is.

Grady proposed a bill last year that would have specifically allowed intelligent design to be taught in public school settings. This year’s bill contained similar language when it was first proposed. It was reworked early in the legislative session to remove any direct mention of intelligent design before even being put in front of lawmakers.

After the bill was altered, two high school students speaking in support of the bill in front of Grady’s committee said they wanted it passed so educators could have the option of offering teaching on intelligent design in addition to evolutionary theory — not as a requirement or a replacement for it.

Teaching about intelligent design in public schools has been controversial for decades.

Proponents of intelligent design contend that many features life of life and the universe are too complex to have evolved from natural selection and must have been created by an intelligent designer. That designer could be, but does not have to be, identified as God. They also claim that intelligent design is a scientific theory.

Others have argued that intelligent design is just creationism in a new package. A federal court in Pennsylvania ruled in 2005 that a public school could not require the teaching of the concept because intelligent design “is not science” and that it “cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.”

Hurricane High School juniors Hayden Hodge and Hunter Bernard, both 16, said they are both religious but that intelligent design is not a religious argument and does not mention anything about God.

“I am not advocating for Biblical Creationism, or Adam and Eve, or the Muslim and Jewish narrative. This is not a biblical narrative,” Hodge said, adding later: “Why not allow teachers to offer students multiple views? Students deserve to hear a multiple of theories and then follow which is more reasonable.”

The National Center for Science Education said in a statement that the legislation is “threatening the integrity of science education in the state’s public schools.”

Aubrey Sparks, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, said the organization would be watching the law’s implementation closely. If the wording of the legislation is ambiguous to her, she said, it’s going to be ambiguous for teachers, students and parents, too.

Staff is in the process of creating a portal for families to report concerns if they do see instances of religious teaching in public schools, Sparks said.

“They pass things like this to try and institutionalize the place of religion in public schools,” she said. “If they wanted to keep religion and public schools separate, then they wouldn’t pass laws like this one.”

When the bill passed the Senate in January, Democratic Sen. Mike Woelfel said he has no problem with anyone’s religious beliefs and that as a Catholic, he thinks God created life. But he said he doesn’t think that’s something that should be taught in public schools and expressed concern that the legislation could be used as a backdoor approach to do so.

He asked Grady if the law would permit teachers to educate students about intelligent design, and she said yes. The definition of what constitutes a “scientific theory” is not included in the bill, Woelfel said.

“What I do have a problem with is the constitution, which says, ‘If you have a bill, it’s got to be specific. It can’t be vague,'” he said. “People need to know what the bill says so they can follow the bill.”

The Seattle-based Center for Science and Culture, the leading organization advocating for intelligent design acceptance and research, is against public schools teaching the concept.


Instead, the organization pushes for public school policies “protecting teacher academic freedom to discuss the scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolution without getting into alternative theories like intelligent design,” Center Associate Director Casey Luskin said.

He said supporters’ “priority with intelligent design is to see it grow and develop as a science.”

“When it gets brought into public schools, that politicizes the issue, and that politicization leads to witch hunts and discrimination against pro-ID scientists and faculty in the academy,” he said.

The academic freedom approach, however, is “legal and helps greatly improve student learning.”

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