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Biology Professor Pushes Panic Button over Possible Romney VP Pick

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Biology professor and textbook author Kenneth Miller, a prominent Darwin defender, is worried that Mitt Romney may be considering Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal for the Republican VP spot. That, says Miller over at Slate, would be a terrible idea because Jindal "promotes creationist nonsense in schools."

How so? In 2009, Jindal signed the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA) into law which, according to Miller, is a "thinly veiled attempt to allow creationism into the science classrooms of his state."

How does this relate to presidential politics? Because, for one, sneaking creationism into public schools would be an unconstitutional thing for a governor to do, but particularly foolish if you happen to govern Louisiana.

In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court said in Edwards v. Aguillard that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment bars state promotion of creationism -- a form of religion -- in public high school biology class. Recently feted at Stanford Law for its public impact, Edwards is a big church-state separation case. It centered on a Louisiana statute that promoted creationism. The statute was struck down as a form of state establishment of religion.

Now, what are the odds that that no one in the governor's office considered Edwards before the LSEA signing ceremony, if only to make sure the LSEA wasn't a redo of the earlier creationist law? Passing clearly unconstitutional law -- again -- would be gubernatorial malpractice. At the very least, it's an inadvisable path to reelection, and even less to be recommended if you're interested in occupying the VP's office in the West Wing.

The more likely story is that the LSEA is not in fact intended by Jindal at all to "promote creationist nonsense in schools" in violation of Edwards, as Miller suggests. Rather, by its plain language the LSEA encourages critical thinking in science class, not unlike the academic freedom law passed in Tennessee earlier this year, while expressly disclaiming protection for any form of religious instruction. The law's rationale holds that inquiry, the name for an increasingly popular approach to instruction, is a useful skill and attitude, better for students than simply memorizing science "facts." We have discussed this here in the past.

But don't take my word. Read the text of the LSEA for yourself.

�285.1. Science education; development of critical thinking skills

A. This Section shall be known and may be cited as the "Louisiana Science Education Act."

B. (1) The State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, upon request of a city, parish, or other local public school board, shall allow and assist teachers, principals, and other school administrators to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.

(2) Such assistance shall include support and guidance for teachers regarding effective ways to help students understand, analyze, critique, and objectively review scientific theories being studied, including those enumerated in Paragraph (1) of this Subsection.

C. A teacher shall teach the material presented in the standard textbook supplied by the school system and thereafter may use supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner, as permitted by the city, parish, or other local public school board unless otherwise prohibited by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

D. This Section shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.

E. The State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and each city, parish, or other local public school board shall adopt and promulgate the rules and regulations necessary to implement the provisions of this Section prior to the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year.

Put yourself in the shoes of a Louisiana teacher, or anyone else who can read English. Would you find legislative safe harbor in the text above for teaching religion in science class? No? Congratulations. You read better than a certain well-known biology textbook author (one with a vested interest in maintaining the non-inquiry status quo).

If, however, you continue to suffer from acute Darwin Alarmism, then you probably need a vacation, and maybe a little good news on the science education front. I can help with the latter:

Whatever individual LSEA lawmakers may have intended by the LSEA, if a teacher teaches religion in science class, the LSEA will not shelter such conduct from constitutional challenge. To follow the LSEA, and to be protected by it, means to avoid the promotion of religion in science class.

And that's the sort of science education law and policy everyone can, or ought to, get behind.