NEW ORLEANS (AP) — There are disagreements on what exactly will result from policy language the state education board recently adopted for teaching science in Louisiana public schools, but one thing looks pretty clear: sooner or later Louisiana is going back to court in a case that will look like a descendant of the 1987 argument over "scientific creationism."
Barbara Forrest, staunch opponent of anything that might bring the religious-based concept into science classes, thinks such a fight is just what some supporters of the new state policy have in mind. She points fingers at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a think tank that backs, among other things, the idea of intelligent design — the concept that there is scientific evidence that living organisms were designed.
An institute spokesman denies any desire for a court fight over the issue and points to its public position in support of intelligent design but against requiring its teaching in public schools.
"We're certainly not looking for a test case and we're not trying to legislate the instruction of intelligent design," said John West of the Discovery Institute.
So, what has Forrest worried?
Earlier this month the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to establish policy language in light of last year's legislation that allows local school systems to supplement state-approved science texts with supplemental materials to encourage "critical thinking" on science topics.
Opponents questioned the need for such a law and said it's likely a means of trying to infuse science classes with concepts based on faith rather than science. Proponents said it would merely allow science-based questions about topics such as evolution.
Charged with implementing the law, BESE staff came up with draft policy language that included this sentence: "Materials that teach creationism or intelligent design or that advance the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind shall be prohibited for use in science classes."
Louisiana's law giving creationsm equal time with evolution in science class was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987. In 2005, a federal judge barred the school system in Dover, Pa., from teaching intelligent design alongside evolution in high school biology classes. The judge said intelligent design is religion masquerading as science.
Given those decisions, the draft BESE language would seem to be sound policy that would keep teachers out of legally questionable territory.
But Louisiana Family Forum and other backers of the law by Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, persuaded BESE to cut the language. It went beyond the scope of the law, they said. It was "hostile" to religion, complained LFF director Gene Mills.
Forrest, a Southeastern Louisiana University professor who works with the National Center for Science Education and who is a founder of the Louisiana Coalition for Science, suspects a different motive: that "intelligent design" backers hope to eventually introduce their concept into Louisiana science classes and that a Louisiana federal court might see things differently than the federal judge in Pennsylvania.
"They're shopping around for another court case," said Forrest, an expert witness for intelligent design opponents in the Dover case.
True, the policy adopted by BESE, as well as the law passed last year, expressly forbid use of materials that "promote religious doctrine." But backers of intelligent design say it's science, not religion.
BESE has the right to block materials it deems inappropriate and it may be called upon to do so by a parent who believes his or her child is being taught religion instead of science.
But, if BESE doesn't want to specifically block intelligent design now, will it do so if a teacher introduces an intelligent design text into a classroom?
If it doesn't, Forrest and others will surely go to court.
If it does, some backers of intelligent design — whether supported by the Discovery Institute or not — would likely do the same, perhaps under the banner of the new legislation.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Kevin McGill is a reporter for The Associated Press in New Orleans.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.