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Nearly 70 bills encouraging the teaching of theories other than evolution – creationism or intelligent design, or some combination thereof – were pushed in multiple states over the last decade. Nearly all have failed, either in statehouses or courtrooms.

But a group of committed legislators who have pushed these measures have now hit upon a new formula: a group of bills that would simply allow teachers to teach whatever they would like.

South Dakota, Oklahoma and Indiana are all considering bills which would allow teachers to teach whatever they want, in the interest of free dialogue about science.

The bills are monitored by a pro-science group called the National Center for Science Education, based in California. Glenn Branch, the deputy director of the group, said that the legislators who are pushing the bills have previously sponsored pro-creationist or anti-evolution measures in their respective states. Now those politicians are taking a different tack to include intelligent design and other theories. 

In the current environment where “alternative facts” and “fake news” dominate in civic discussion, the bills will have a whole new science to determine what ideas are taught to students in multiple states, Branch told Laboratory Equipment via email.

“All the sponsors of this year's bills are repeat offenders and probably would have introduced their bills regardless of the broader political situation,” he added. “Legislators may feel emboldened to introduce more bills like these… The result may be a sort of arms race, with tactics and counter-tactics intensifying and escalating on both sides.”

All the bills are sponsored by state legislators who had spent years ineffectually pushing bills to promote creationism, intelligent design, or some combination thereof.

 In South Dakota, the bill known as SB 55 pushed by State Sen. Jeff Monroe prohibits school boards from preventing teachers to present “in an objective scientific manner the strengths and weaknesses of scientific information” in classrooms. It does not mention evolution or climate change specifically in the bill, but it has similar language to previous bills that have failed – most recently one sponsored in 2014 by Monroe.

The Oklahoma bill called SB 393 also uses the same language of “strengths and weaknesses” – and does so without mentioning creationism or climate change. State Sen. Josh Brecheen, who won his first term in 2010 and proposed his first failed bill in 2011 about “academic freedom,” continued with other attempts in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

Indiana is pushing similar language, although in a resolution known as SR 17. Sponsored by state senators Jeff Raatz and Dennis Kruse, it states a goal “to reinforce support of teachers who choose to teach a diverse curriculum.” The pair pushed a bill focused on teaching human cloning in 2015. But Kruse has sponsored three separate bills dating as far back as 2000 which would have mandated teaching creationism in the state’s schools. All measures were defeated.

Though the words are carefully used within each bill, each of the politicians has taken a different approach in presenting the legislation to the public.

“The statements of the legislative sponsors similarly varies: sometimes they specify that they’re concerned about evolution or about climate change or about both; sometimes they try to remain tactically silent,” Branch told Laboratory Equipment. “In all three of this year’s bills, the primary target seems to be evolution, with climate change named as a subsidiary target mainly in South Dakota.”

Such bills are not common, but they’re not unheard of. As many as a dozen of the kinds of science-education bills are proposed each year, and roughly 70 have appeared over the last decade, Branch said. Only two have succeeded: one in Louisiana in 2008, and another in Tennessee in 2012.

A study in Science magazine last January mapped the evolution of the bills since the landmark federal lawsuit Kitzmiller v. Dover, which established that creationism did not have to be taught alongside evolution. The Australian National University author of the piece attributed the ongoing legislative campaigns to the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.

“The creationist antievolution movement has reinvented itself not once but twice in the decade since Kitzmiller,” the article finds.

The debate over evolution in American classrooms began in the 1920s, and reached a fever pitch with the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 that resulted in bans on evolution teaching remaining legal. That changed with the landmarks Supreme Court decision Epperson v. Arkansas in 1968, which held that such evolution bans were unconstitutional.

Alabama has consistently been at the forefront of creationist and intelligent design arguments. The state school board only mandated the teaching of evolution and climate change in September 2015. However, Alabama education officials also decided to keep a four-paragraph warning in all school textbooks explaining how such theories were controversial.

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