Academic Freedom Sometimes Neither Academic nor Freedom


When the Christian Right begins advocating freedom in public classrooms, practice the time-honored discipline of moral discernment. Listen carefully. Think cautiously. Remember that the Right's past agenda is the best predictor of their real agenda. Know that God is not the author of confusion, but God's children are, especially when it comes to those who want theology taught in biology classrooms in public schools.

Christian fundamentalists are trying to shoehorn creationism into classrooms under the core American value of freedom.

Three state legislatures now have academic freedom bills: Florida, Louisiana and Missouri, according to the Discovery Institute, an organization which advances "intelligent design," the first cousin of creationism.

The Discovery Institute describes academic freedom acts as "bills that would ensure the freedom of teachers to help students understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of theories of biological and chemical evolution."

Casey Luskin, a Discovery Institute program officer said, "More and more states are beginning to realize how important it is to protect the rights of teachers to be able to present all of the scientific evidence when teaching biological evolution."

Intelligent design advocates claim that teachers who question Darwinian evolution experience discrimination and that academic freedom acts will protect these teachers. Moreover, they assert that opponents of such legislation really oppose objective classroom discussions about evolution.

In Louisiana, Sen. Ben Nevers (D-Bogalusa) said his bill would not open the door to the teaching of creationism in public schools. He said it would let students be "exposed to both sides of scientific data and allow them to make their own decisions."

The Louisiana Family Forum, a state affiliate of James Dobson's Focus on the Family, asked Nevers to introduce the bill.

Florida's "Academic Freedom Act" is "needed because the new science standards present the theory of evolution in a dogmatic way," said State Sen. Ronda Storms, a Republican legislator, who belongs to the First Baptist Church of Brandon, a fundamentalist church with a Christian academy.

Storms claims that she is being personally attacked and that the mainstream media are ignoring the assaults against her religious faith, according to the Florida Baptist Witness. She said her "bill does not authorize the teaching of creationism or even Intelligent Design."

Senate majority leader Daniel Webster (R-Winter Garden), a bill supporter, said, "[A]re we or are we not going to have academic freedom? Are we going to be able to teach without having some canned speech that we have to make in every classroom? And I think this is going to go a long way in allowing flaws in whatever theory is presented to be pointed out without fear of retribution by someone over you."

Webster belongs to the First Baptist Church of Central Florida in Orlando, which also sponsors a Christian academy.

In Missouri, State Representative Wayne Cooper (R-Camdenton) introduced a similar bill.

"I believe what is packaged and sold under the label of science is not science, but is people's personal world view," said Cooper.

Like Louisiana and Florida, Missouri proponents claim that they are not promoting religion. Instead the bill is "simply trying" to ensure that educators "have the discretion to explore the subject and to do so without fear of any retribution," said Joe Ortwerth, executive director of the Missouri Family Policy Council, another state affiliate of Focus on the Family.

Florida, Louisiana and Missouri have bills that allegedly advance academic freedom, not the teaching of creationism or intelligent design in public classrooms.

Given the affiliations and actions of these proponents of academic freedom, one may rightfully conclude that they are being deceptive, no matter how much they proclaim the virtue of their cause or claim discrimination. Deceit is never a Christian virtue in the public square. Fostering confusion never advances truthfulness.

Florida, Louisiana and Missouri residents ought to reject these bills based on the dishonesty of their sponsors and advocates, not to mention that these folk want to breach the wall of separation between church and state.

"Be wise as serpents" was the way that Jesus called for the practice of discernment.

Practicing discernment means recognizing that academic goals aren't always academic goals, freedom isn't always freedom and what Christians say isn't always what they mean.

Practicing discernment means doing the right thing for public education the right way for the common good in a pluralistic society.

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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Florida Education Board Should Stick to Science, Avoid Theology

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