Education, West Virginia Legislature

Senate Intelligent Design bill undergoes evolution in House Judiciary

MORGANTOWN – The Senate’s Intelligent Design bill took another step in its evolution on Tuesday, as the House Judiciary Committee took up and approved the fourth version and sent it to the House floor.

The discussion has also evolved since the origin of SB 280 in the Senate: from teaching ID in the classroom on the Senate side, to Judiciary’s exploration of teachers’ legal protections, diversity of thought and whether or not ID falls within the realm of science.

The bill began in the Senate as one sentence: “Teachers in public schools, including public charter schools … may teach intelligent design as a theory of how the universe and/or humanity came to exist.”

It left the Senate without the references to charter schools and ID, saying instead: “No public school board, school superintendent, or school principal shall prohibit a public school classroom teacher from discussing or answering questions from students about scientific theories of how the universe and/or life came to exist.”

House Education took it up in mid-February and changed one word: “shall” to “may.”

And on Tuesday, as a procedural matter, Judiciary formally rejected the Education version and took up this more restricted one: “No public school board, school superintendent, or school principal may prohibit a public school classroom teacher from responding to student inquiries or answering questions from students about scientific theories of how the universe and/or life came to exist.”

Committee counsel told the members this iteration limits what goes on. “This reads to me more like a protection for teachers that receive complaints about how they answer a question.”

Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, in a back-and-forth with counsel, contended that ID is not supported by hypotheses that can be tested, producing repeatable evidence and independent observations, so it’s not scientific.

Counsel pointed out that the bill also touches on the origin of life, which can’t be scientifically tested at all. The bill, in his view, offers a defense in an adverse action. Under current law, if a student asked a teacher how life came into being, the teacher could discuss the Big Bang and evolution but not creation. “I think that that would be risky.”

During general discussion of the bill, Hansen said, “I think we’ve got to be careful here and think about which of these are scientific theories and which are not.” Contrary to the opinion of the majority party, he believes the bill doesn’t protect creationism or ID because they are not scientific theories, he said.

Delegate Joey Garcia, D-Marion, offered a different caution. While the bill allows a teacher the freedom to answer a question, “there really are no guardrails on what that response will be.” The teacher might be an atheist or believe aliens planted life on the planet. “It’s wide open.”

Supporting the bill, Delegate Geoff Foster, R-Putnam, said, “What we’ve done is replace the word scientific with the god of time.” Enough time has passed that life may have sprung up through random chance. A teacher couldn’t answer a question about that because the discussion could move to the possibility of a consciousness behind the formation of the universe and development of life.

Delegate Todd Kirby, R-Raleigh, said the bill would allow a wide range of discussions without fear of repercussion. “It would diversify discussions within our classrooms.”

And Delegate Mark Zatezalo, R-Hancock and a geologist by profession cautioned about the growing trend – in news and social media and life in general – to suppress unwanted thought and expression. Every day, people say, “We need censorship of people who don’t believe what we believe. That’s really scary. The human race thrives on differences of opinion and discussion.”

If the House passes the bill, it will return to the Senate for agreement on the amendments.