<em>Slate</em> Cartoonist Takes a Stab at Statutory Interpretation 'Cause, Hey, Why Not? - Evolution News & Views

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Slate Cartoonist Takes a Stab at Statutory Interpretation 'Cause, Hey, Why Not?

Slate's Chris Kirk drew up a map of the United States, dotted the states with variously colored dots, and then captioned the work with the claim that there are "thousands of schools that are teaching creationism with taxpayer money." Kirk then performs in his article a "state-by-state" breakdown of ten states with schools (i.e., colored dots) supposedly involved in this unconstitutional behavior, including Louisiana and Tennessee.

This has been getting a lot of attention, including from activist Zack Kopplin.

The only reason Kirk gives for thinking that schools in Louisiana and Tennessee are "teaching creationism" is that "recent laws in Louisiana and Tennessee ... permit public school teachers to teach 'alternatives' to evolution." By "recent laws" Kirk is presumably referring to the Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008 and Tennessee's 2012 version of the same, each an instance of academic freedom statute.

Even if these academic freedom statutes permitted creationist instruction, that alone would not be a reason to think that any school in either state is actually engaged in creationist instruction, never mind the hundreds and hundreds of Louisiana and Tennessee schools implicated by Kirk's zealous dotting. To support his claim, Kirk would need to, say, actually first take a look at what schools in those states are in fact teaching, which he apparently failed to do.

In any event, neither of these academic freedom statutes "permit public school teachers to teach 'alternatives' to evolution," as Kirk claims. They certainly don't permit "teaching creationism." As the Louisiana statute states:

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.

And:

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.

These sections together mean that, in Louisiana, public school teachers must teach the official school district textbook and may then supplement that textbook with other materials adopted pursuant to rules made by state and local school boards. None of these rules authorize adoption of supplemental materials that cover "'alternatives' to evolution."

The Tennessee statute states:

Neither the state board of education, nor any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or any public elementary or secondary school principal or administrator shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

And:

This section only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion.

These sections in conjunction with one another and with other sources of law mean that, in Tennessee, public school teachers must teach the official school district textbook for their course but may for any non-religious, pedagogical purpose critique the textbook's content. This does not mean teachers may teach "'alternatives' to evolution," as Kirk says. And since creationism is a religious viewpoint, they expressly do not protect the teaching of creationism.

Now, Kirk is not a lawyer. He is "interactives editor" for Slate, which is to say he draws maps of spaceships and the like. His recent work includes an article on the curse words most commonly used on Facebook. So, naturally, Slate tapped Kirk to provide the American public a legal opinion on two education statutes. What could possibly go wrong?


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