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Darwin deniers inject religion into Florida biology classes.
More than nine decades have passed since the Scopes Monkey Trial roiled American sensibilities. Yet, all these years later, Florida still wrestles with this evolution stuff.
Of course, nowadays Darwin deniers are mindful of constitutional prohibitions against proselytizing in the public school classrooms. They’re necessarily more oblique than their Bible-waving predecessors.
The anti-science measure Gov. Rick Scott signed into law in June, for instance, carefully avoided a direct mention of evolution, although a stack of affidavits filed by members of the Naples-based Florida Citizens Alliance, who championed the bill, made it plain what this was about.
“Most Americans believe that the world and the beings living on it were created by God as revealed in the Bible.” said one. Another complained public schools were pushing “the presentation of evolution as fact with no clarifying that this is an unproven theory, and that there are other beliefs as to the origin of life.”
The new law enables any Florida resident to challenge public school teaching materials they find “unsuitable, inappropriate or pornographic.” Such elastic language also allows community gadflies to object to other “pro-Marxist, anti-American” notions they think has crept into textbooks, like global warming or sea level rise. “I have witnessed children being taught that global warming is a reality,” another affidavit attested, adding a rather spurious digression: “Now that it is colder and the country is experiencing repeated cold waves, the new term is climate change.”
The objectors indicated that they intend to apply the “pornographic” label to assigned reading like Toni Morrison’s Pulitizer Prize-winning novel “Beloved” and Cristina Garcia’s critically acclaimed “Dreaming in Cuban.”
But it’s that damned Darwinian theory of natural selection that has these activists frothing. That’s what inspired Ocala state Sen. Dennis Baxley, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida, to introduce yet another bill last week designed to muddle science education in Florida’s public schools. Baxley filed legislation that require “controversial theories and concepts must be taught in a factual, objective and balanced manner.” That same coded language has shown up in legislation in other southern states where lawmakers are intent on injecting ol’ time religion into biology lesson plans.
Except Florida’s a cultural anomaly compared to other states in the Old Confederacy. Only about 53 percent of us are “highly religious,” according a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center. That’s considerable less religiosity than was measured in the populations of Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and other Dixieland states.
But thanks to the magic of gerrymandering, Florida’s Bible belt runs the show in Tallahassee. God and guns are our priorities. (The Florida Citizens Alliance website also complains, “Our kids are being indoctrinated in our public schools and being taught that our 2nd Amendment right to self-defense is outdated. They are being taught to support gun control and depend on government to protect them.”)
Except this kind of civic leadership leaves Florida with an intellectual contradiction. Even while we support medical researchers worried about the evolution of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and astronomers who measure distances by millions of light years, we’ve got politicians wanting Florida school children taught that our entire biosphere clocks in at just under 7,000 years old.
Thanks to the magic of gerrymandering, Florida’s Bible belt runs the show in Tallahassee. God and guns are our priorities.
We’ve got politicians who demagogue against basic tenants of biological research, but who are quite willing to partake in the results of godless science when cancer comes calling.
But I wouldn’t bet against Sen. Baxley’s bill. The chairman of the Governmental Oversight and Accountability has real power in Tallahassee. Back in 2005, as a member of the House of Representatives, he was co-sponsor of Florida’s infamous Stand Your Ground legislation. Earlier this year, he pushed through a “religious expressions” bill, giving public school students the right to express religious beliefs in school assignments, wear religious clothing and jewelry to school and to “pray or engage in and organize religious activities before, during and after the school day.”
And now he’s renewing his old fight against “controversial theories.” We can’t say that Baxley didn’t warn us that this was coming.
Back in 2008, the State Board of Education adopted (by a 4-3 vote) science education standards that, despite a hellacious outcry, actually employed the word evolution, describing the concept as a fundamental explanation for biological diversity. It seemed like a great day for a state that was spending a considerable amount of money trying to persuade biomedical research outfits to relocate our way.
But Dennis Baxley declared, “This controversy will never be over.”
And 92 years after a substitute high school teacher named John Thomas Scopes was convicted (and fined $100) for violating Tennessee’s prohibition against teaching evolution, it looks like Baxley just might be right.