Mixed news from Virginia


Virginia's House Bill 207, which would deprive administrators of the ability to prevent teachers from miseducating students about "scientific controversies," is in search of a home. On February 3, 2014, the House Committee on Education referred the bill to the House Committee on Courts of Justice on a 14-8 vote. But, unusually, the latter committee refused to accept the bill, so it returns to the former committee, which is expected to consider it again at its February 5, 2014, meeting.

The referral was recommended by the House Subcommittee for Elementary and Secondary Education, which voted 4-3 for it at its January 30, 2014, meeting, according to the Washington Post (January 31, 2014). The bill's sponsor Richard P. "Dickie" Bell (R-District 20), who chairs the subcommittee, was one of the three voting against the referral, so the vote is regarded as a setback for the bill.

The day before the subcommittee hearing, the Post (January 29, 2014) reported on HB 207, quoting Bell as acknowledging that evolution and climate change "might fall into [the] category" of scientific controversies mentioned by the bill. Those topics were cited in similar bills enacted in Tennessee and Louisiana. Bell earlier told The Recorder (January 23, 2014) that he was himself a creationist and regarded global warming as "all theory at this point."

Discounting HB 207's appeal to "lofty secular ideals of openness and inquiry," NCSE's deputy director Glenn Branch told the Post that "giving teachers this license will encourage them to use it, and no one will know what is going on." Branch earlier explained to The Recorder, "After all, they could claim that in doing so, they’re simply helping their students to understand the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of evolution, climate science, heliocentrism, etc."

Juanita Jo Matkins, a past president of the Virginia Association of Science Teachers — representing the supposed beneficiaries of the bill — told the Post that the bill was unnecessary, citing the emphasis on critical thinking and scientific exploration throughout the Virginia state science standards. "That is part and parcel of every standard," she said. Matkins also took exception to the bill's emphasis on "opinion" and "belief."

Walter Witschey, a professor of science education and anthropology at Longwood University as well as a past president of the Virginia Academy of Science and a former director of the Science Museum of Virginia, attended the subcommittee hearing, and told NCSE that about ten people spoke in opposition to HB 207, including a variety of science teachers, representatives of science teaching organizations, and representatives of religious organizations.

According to Witschey, Bell said that the bill was brought to him by the Virginia Christian Alliance. The organization explicitly promotes young-earth creationism, and its vice president of public policy Rita Dunaway, who also works for the Rutherford Institute, represented Ohio middle school teacher John Freshwater in his failed appeal of his dismissal for insubordination, which included his use of antievolution methods and materials in the classroom.

WRIC (January 31, 2014) later reported that Bell acknowledged that he was approached by the Virginia Christian Alliance and that he claimed that the bill would allow students to challenge topics like evolution and global warming — although only teachers, not students, are mentioned in the text of the bill. Autumn Reinhardt-Simpson of the Secular Coalition of Virginia described the bill as "code for creationism" and as "completely unnecessary."