Senseless in the Senate

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Senseless in the Senate
Author(s): 
Eric Meikle, NCSE Outreach Coordinator
Volume: 
20
Issue: 
6
Year: 
2000
Date: 
November–December
Page(s): 
4
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Originally published in RNCSE 20 (6): 4. The version on the web might differ slightly from the print publication.

On June 13, 2001, the US Senate adopted a “Sense of the Senate” resolution, proposed by Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania), as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act Authorization bill, S1, currently under consideration. The resolution (Amendment #799) reads:

It is the sense of the Senate that (1) good science education should prepare students to distinguish the data or testable theories of science from philosophical or religious claims that are made in the name of science; and (2) where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why the subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subject.
Although the resolution appears innocuous, it is telling that only evolution is singled out from all possible controversial issues. If the goal of the resolution were simply to encourage discussion of the social dimensions of scientific issues, or critical thinking, or some other secular purpose, the second clause of the resolution might have read, “when controversial issues are taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why the subjects generate controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subjects.”

The fact that evolution is singled out from all controversial issues indicates the amendment’s intention to discourage evolution education. It is no coincidence that Senator Santorum cited arguments for “teaching the controversy” made by intelligent design proponent David DeWolf in presenting his resolution. In the June 18 Washington Times, another intelligent design promoter, Phillip Johnson, is quoted as having “helped frame the language” of the resolution.

The vote to adopt the resolution was 91–8. It seems likely that most or nearly all senators were unaware of the anti-evolution implications of the language of the amendment. However, the tactic of singling out evolution for special mention as controversial is commonly used by anti-evolutionists in states and localities where they challenge its place in science education.

The comments of several senators in the Congressional Record suggest that they recognized the implications of the resolution. Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas stated that passage of this resolution would justify the 1999 actions of the Kansas State Board of Education in removing evolution from their test standards. Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia also expressed doubts about the reality of evolution before supporting the amendment.

The comments of anti-evolution groups following passage of the resolution also show the propaganda value they recognize in this language. The Answers in Genesis ministry web site headlined its account “US Senate supports intellectual freedom!”. AIG also informed its readers how to “… contact your Congressman to express your support of the Senate version of the Education bill that states that evolution is controversial…” A student “intelligent design” club at the University of California at San Diego headlined its report “Some Democratic and Republican Senators Feel Questioning of Evolutionary Theory in Schools is Legitimate”.

On June 14, the overall bill passed the Senate 91–8. The House of Representatives had previously passed a version of the Education bill without a comparable evolution statement. The two versions are currently before a conference committee, which will resume work on reconciling the bills following Congress’s August recess.

Other accounts of the Santorum amendment are available on the American Geological Institute’s web site or visit here.