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Florida's "academic freedom" bills

Table of contents
Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5

Part 5: Legislative ping pong kills the bills

On receiving SB 2692 from the Senate, the House amended it by substituting the entire bill with the text of HB 1483, and passed the amended version on a vote of 71-43 on April 28, 2008. Debate on the bill proceeded along familar lines: as the Tallahassee Democrat (April 28, 2008) reported, "Proponents said the bill is needed to protect teachers and students from academic reprisal for challenging Charles Darwin's theories, while opponents said it was a veiled attempt at sneaking religion into the public schools." Representative Tony Sasso (D-District 32) warned, "We're opening the door to religious discussion by doing this."

Representative Carl Domino (R-District 83), voting against the bill, observed that it in effect invited teachers to present their personal opinions about evolution in the classroom. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel (April 28, 2008) reported, "Noting that some people believe the Holocaust never happened or 9/11 was an Israel-hatched plot, Domino said he doesn't want fringe theories introduced in public schools. 'There are a lot of strange things out there that I don't want teachers teaching,' said Domino, who joined the Democrats in voting against the bill. He said it would be difficult or impossible to challenge evolution from a scientific viewpoint since there's near unanimity on evolution in the scientific community."

The question of whether the bill would be constitutional arose again during the House debate. According to the Orlando Sentinel's blog (April 28, 2008), Hays complained, "thanks to the Supreme Court's distortion of the First Amendment, too many people are afraid to even mention the theory of intelligent design," a remark in tension with his earlier claim that the bill would not require or allow the teaching of "intelligent design." House minority leader Dan Gelber (D-District 106) hinted at the prospect of litigation by asking "a series of questions with Hays [to] be 'spread' into the House Journal -- a tactic usually employed when lawmakers want the intent of a bill to be read into the record for future court interpretation."

A press release dated April 28, 2008, issued by the pro-science grassroots group Florida Citizens for Science deplored the passage of the House bill, warning of "the stunting effect this legislation will have on science education, as students will be exposed to old, discredited arguments against evolution that have their roots in religious protestations against that science, and be misled into thinking those arguments have the same weight as the real scientific findings," and predicting that if the bill is enacted, "a Florida school district will face a legal fight that will cost millions of wasted taxpayer dollars."

Noting the apparent intransigence in both chambers of the legislature to compromise, the St. Petersburg Times (April 28, 2008) observed, "The Florida Legislature may not weigh in on the state's new standards for teaching evolution after all. Chalk it up to a difference of words between two lawmakers' bills, and the reality that there might not be enough time left this session to negotiate a compromise." Similarly, the Tampa Tribune (April 29, 2008) commented, "Prospects grew dim on Monday for legislation allowing public school teachers to criticize evolution theory in class when the House approved bill language that the Senate had already rejected."

Even if a compromise is reached, it is still unclear whether Governor Charlie Crist would sign a bill into law. The Fort Meyers News-Press (April 29, 2008) reported that Crist "ducked a question about whether he would sign the measure if it reaches his desk," but in an impromptu press conference in the press gallery during the House debate, the Palm Beach Post's blog (April 28, 2008) reported, Crist "showed little enthusiasm for the bill." "Asked if he believe in evolution, Crist said, 'I believe in a lot of things. We should have the freedom to have a good exchange of ideas.' But is legislation needed to guarantee that exchange? 'I'm not so sure,' Crist said."

The House had stripped the Senate's approved version in favor of the House's own text and returned it to the Senate. The Senate didn't like the House version at all. So the Senate then restored the text of SB 2692 and sent it back to the House, where it sat untouched and thus died. HB 1483 was already tabled, and so it died, too. When the Florida legislature ended its session on May 2, 2008, legislative attempts to open the door to creationism died in the House of Representatives.

NCSE congratulates and thanks those in the Sunshine State who fought against these antievolution bills, including the editorial boards of the state's newspapers, the writers and framers of the state science standards, scientists at the state's universities and in industry, the ACLU of Florida, a handful of vocal legislators from both parties, and, especially, the grassroots group Florida Citizens for Science, whose spokesperson Brandon Haught commented at the end of the legislative session, "Let us take a moment of silence for House Bill 1483 and Senate Bill 2692, the deceptively named 'academic freedom' bills. Time of death: 6 p.m." But looking ahead to the challenges of the next legislative session, Haught added, "I doubt they will rest in peace, though."

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