The Florida Senate's pre-K-through-12 education committee approved a bill Wednesday that protects teachers who include theories questioning evolution in their coverage of the much-debated topic.
Legislators voted 4-1 to advance the "Academic Freedom Act," or SB2692, which provides "public school teachers with a right to present scientific information relevant to the full range of views" on evolution.
Sen. Ronda Storms (R-Valrico) and state Rep. D. Alan Hays (R-Umatilla) introduced the measure in response to new science standards adopted last month by the Florida Board of Education that, for the first time, required schools to use the term "evolution" instead of such terms "as changes over time" for the scientific theory. The new standards also mandate that evolution be taught in more detail.
"Evolution will still be taught as a matter of law. This bill does not undo the current standard," said Storms, a former teacher, according to The Tampa Tribune.
The legislation protects teachers and students from discrimination or penalty based on their position on Darwin's theory of evolution, according to the bill's text.
The measure also states that it does not "promote any religious position."
The 37 scientists and educators who helped develop draft science standards for the state board have objected to the "Academic Freedom" measure.
They contend the bill is "a subterfuge for injecting the religious beliefs held by some into the science classroom," the group said in a statement, according to the Sun Sentinel.
In arguments presented before the committee Wednesday, a representative of American Civil Liberties Union said the measure would open to door to teaching religious beliefs.
Proponents of the bill, however, maintain that the proposal would not permit teachings of alternative theories to evolution - specifically intelligent design or creationism – but apply to scientific theories critical of evolution.
According to Storms, a teacher might say: "Here's the theory of evolution and here are the flaws and here are the breaks. Here are the people with legitimate questions. Here's what the theories are," the Palm Beach Post reported.
The legislation has garnered the support of Florida Family Policy Council, the intelligent design think-tank Discovery Institute and actor Ben Stein, who hosts the upcoming documentary, "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," about scientists and educators who faced persecution and disciplining for questioning evolution.
"This bill is not about teaching intelligent design. It's about freedom of speech," Stein told reporters at a press conference earlier this month, before screening his film before Florida legislators in Tallahassee.
"It's interesting for me to note that the only folks who brought up religion today have been those in opposition," said Storms, according to The Tampa Tribune.
Sen. Ted Deutch (D-Boca Raton), who voted against the measure Wednesday, brought up a point made in a staff analysis of the bill, which said that there have been no complaints of teachers or students who faced the discrimination described in the bill.
Storms said victims of such discrimination were afraid to come forward, the St. Petersburg Times reported.
The Senate version of the bill must now be approved by the Senate judiciary committee before it can be scheduled for the Senate floor.
The House bill, HB1483, hasn't been scheduled for a hearing.