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Update from Virginia

Virginia's House Bill 207 received extensive coverage in a hometown newspaper — The Recorder, published in the district of the bill's sponsor, Richard P. "Dickie" Bell (R-District 20). In reporting on various bills introduced by Bell, the newspaper commented (January 23, 2014), "By far, Bell's proposal for science teachers has attracted the most scrutiny."

After summarizing the bill, and noting the precedents enacted in Louisiana in 2008 and Tennessee in 2012, the newspaper asked Bell about his intentions. Bell disclaimed any desire to promote doubt about evolution or encourage the teaching of religious beliefs, although he himself is a creationist and is not convinced that evolution is scientifically credible. Rather, he claimed that science educators are worried about controversies in the classroom over topics like evolution and global warming: "Some people accept global warming, some don't. You can't discount everything; it's all theory at this point." The bill, he explained, was intended not to encourage teachers to broach the discussion of such controversies but to make them comfortable when they arise.

NCSE's Glenn Branch was unimpressed, telling The Reporter, "These bills have been consistently and vehemently opposed by practically every national scientific and science teaching organization." He explained that HB 207 would, if enacted, "permit science teachers with idiosyncratic opinions to teach anything they pleased — proponents of creationism and climate change denial are the usual intended beneficiaries of such bills — and prevent responsible educational authorities from intervening." He noted that proponents of the bills, like Bell, have never actually offered any evidence that educators are fearful about teaching scientific controversies or have been persecuted for doing so. And he added that Virginia's science standards already promote critical thinking.

The Reporter noted, "A number of religious freedom groups, civil rights and science teacher organizations are gearing up to oppose the bill," and quoted Debra Linick of the Jewish Community Relations Council as saying, "Though creationism and evolution are not directly mentioned, this bill is similar to efforts seen no less than 50 times in 17 states in the past decade that open science classes to fringe lectures and potential costly lawsuits. Only Louisiana and Tennessee have passed such legislation — in both cases, over the protests of state and national organizations of scientists and of science teachers. A call for the repeal of Louisiana's law has been supported by over 70 Nobel laureates. ... Courts have long established that creationism is not appropriate to be considered alongside evolution."

Bell acknowledged having received expressions of concerns about the bill: "It's hard to argue with them," he said. Bell also acknowledged that there is no apparent problem that his bill would solve: the absence of such a problem "will probably determine the fate of the bill … I don't like its chances, not this year."

In its editorial (January 23, 2014), The Recorder was critical of the bill, warning of the likelihood of lawsuits if it were enacted, and concluding, "HB 207 isn't one of the bills that would improve education. It runs afoul of current law, and in Virginia, where science teaching is ranked so highly in upholding standards, it's simply unnecessary."