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"Origin of life" bill revived as amendment

On April 20 the Governor of Mississippi signed into law House Bill 214. Although originally unrelated to evolution education, this bill was amended to include the following section in its final version:

SECTION 3. No local school board, school superintendent or school principal shall prohibit a public school classroom teacher from discussing and answering questions from individual students on the origin of life.
The phrase "origin of life", which is often used by creationists as a synonym for "evolution", and especially the detailed legislative history of HB 214 strongly suggest that this section of the bill is intended to allow or encourage anti-evolution teaching in science classes.

When HB 214 was first introduced it dealt only with curriculum requirements for high school students not planning to go on to college. In this form the bill was passed by the House of Representatives on January 18 and by the Senate on March 1.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, an unrelated bill, SB 2427, was passed on February 6 and sent to the House. This bill provided that:

No local school board, school superintendent or school principal shall prohibit a public school classroom teacher from discussing and answering questions from individual students on the issue of flaws or problems which may exist in Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution and the existence of other theories of evolution, including, but not limited to, the Intelligent Design explanation of the origin of life.

In the House, SB 2427 was referred to the Education Committee, where it died on February 28 when a legislative deadline passed. On the next day, March 1, after the Senate had passed HB 214 in its original form, that bill was "reconsidered" and amended through a standard parliamentary procedure. The amendment added a section to HB 214 which consisted of the text of SB 2427. This amendment was proposed by Senator Charles Ross, the original author of SB 2427. The Senate then passed the amended bill and sent it back to the House.

Because the House refused to accept the Senate amendment, the bill went to a conference committee to work out a compromise. Along with changes to other sections of the bill, the conference committee removed the language about "flaws or problems" with evolution and the mention of "other theories of evolution, including, but not limited to, the Intelligent Design explanation". This final version of HB 214 was passed by both House and Senate on March 28, and has now been signed by the governor.

On the surface it might seem that there would be little need for this section of HB 214 in its final form. Don't teachers already have the ability to talk about and answer questions about the origin of life? Has anyone in Mississippi been prohibited from doing so? However, the language of SB 2427 clearly marks it as intended to promote or protect religiously-based opposition to evolution education. HB 214 in its final form seems purposely vague on this matter, but the creationist usage of "origin of life" remains in place. In an article in the April 22 issue of The Commercial Dispatch (Columbus, Mississippi) several school officials are quoted commenting on the new law:

Local school officials say they've not had a problem and worry the new law is so vague that court challenges may loom.

“That's probably something that's going to be contested. It is very vague,” said.Lowndes County schools Superintendent Mike Halford of the need for clarification of what can be discussed in the classroom.

“We're starting to see lawsuits pop up from this,” said Halford, pointing to other states where disputes have sprung up about what students can be taught about the origin of life. “It's just a problem we don't need.”

Columbus High School Principal LaNell Kellum said her school hasn't faced disputes about what evolutionary theories can be discussed in class.

“In all my years, we have not had a problem with that. That has not been an issue,” Kellum said. “We've not had a problem with that in Columbus.”

Noting Darwin's theory of evolution is part of the state's school curriculum, she said teachers use professional ethics and follow the state-written guidelines for teaching their subjects.

“Our teachers have been able to use their professional judgment and teach the curriculum without a problem,” she said.

NCSE remains opposed to attempts by legislatures to micromanage science classrooms through bills which single out evolution, whether negatively or positively, directly or by implication. Judgments about curricula and course content are best made by education and science professionals.