Science law could set tone for Jindal
June 26, 2008, 10:10PM
Gov. Bobby Jindal attracted national attention and strongly worded advice about how he should deal with the Louisiana Science Education Act.
Jindal ignored those calling for a veto and this week signed the law that will allow local school boards to approve supplemental materials for public school science classes as they discuss evolution, cloning and global warming.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will have the power to prohibit materials, though the bill does not spell out how state officials should go about policing local instructional practices.
A subject of considerable debate, but receiving few "nay" votes, in the legislative session that ended Monday, the bill is lauded by its supporters as a great step forward for academic freedom.
Critics call it a back-door attempt to replay old battles about including biblical creationism or "intelligent design" in science curricula, a point defenders reject based on a clause that the law "shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine .¤.¤. or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion."
In signing the bill, Jindal issued a brief statement that read in part: "I will continue to consistently support the ability of school boards and BESE to make the best decisions to ensure a quality education for our children."
'Can't become isolated'
Political observers said Jindal's signature will please one of his key local constituencies: conservative Protestants in north Louisiana. Jindal's long-term political challenge, they said, particularly if the Brown University biology graduate ever seeks national office, is not allowing his political image to be defined by such moves.
"It's good politics if you are a conservative Republican politician," said Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "That being said, not every place is Louisiana. .¤.¤. Certainly this is not going to do anything to endear Bobby Jindal to a majority of voters in places like California and Massachusetts and New York."
Baton Rouge pollster Bernie Pinsonat said: "The ideal candidate is one who has broad appeal. .¤.¤. To become president today, you can't become isolated as the candidate of the religious right."
Yet a cadre of scientists, national groups with a secular agenda, editorial writers and even Jindal's college genetics professors suggested the bill could push Jindal toward that kind of identity.
The New York Times, which previously has praised Jindal's push for ethics law changes, published an editorial titled "Louisiana's Latest Assault on Darwin," recalling a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a Louisiana law requiring that biblical creationism and Darwinian theory be given equal time in the classroom. "If Mr. Jindal has the interests of students at heart, the sensible thing is to veto this Trojan horse legislation," the Times editorial board wrote.
A leading secular group, the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has suggested that the bill will spawn litigation, and Marjorie Esman, state director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said, "To the extent that this might invite religion in the public school classroom, we will do everything we can do to keep religion out."
Arthur Landy, who taught Jindal when the future governor was studying a pre-med curriculum at Brown, released a statement through the Louisiana Coalition for Science, itself a group that wanted a veto. "Gov. Jindal was a good student in my class when he was thinking about becoming a doctor, and I hope he doesn't do anything that would hold back the next generation of Louisiana's doctors," Landy said.
And John Derbyshire, a conservative columnist for the National Review Web site, wrote as he lobbied for a veto, "Any Louisianian who wants his kids to have a religious education can send them to parochial schools."
At the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that promotes intelligent design and backed the new education act, senior fellow John West said he and his colleagues did not directly lobby Jindal. The group did notify its supporters that groups such as the ACLU and the science organizations were pushing for a veto.
West said critics misunderstand the bill, which he said is not about creationism or intelligent design. Rather, he said, it's about clarifying that teachers are free to expose their students to the debates that Darwinian scientists have among themselves.
Instead, too many public school students get a "watered-down" discussion of evolutionary theory or nothing at all from teachers, and administrators are too concerned with not angering parents.
"This bill is not a license to propagandize against something they don't like in science," West said. "Someone who uses materials to inject religion into the classroom is not only violating the Constitution, they are violating the bill."
The bill enjoyed support from the Louisiana Family Forum, a group that is upfront in its push for more religious expressions in the public sphere.
Bill Barrow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 225.342.5590.
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