Saturday, April 29, 2006

Freedom to Discuss in Mississippi

New law in Mississippi, with text of law in bold:
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- School officials can't prohibit teachers and students from discussing how life began under a new state law signed by Gov. Haley Barbour.

As originally drafted, the measure was designed to foster discussions about the theory of "intelligent design" and flaws with Darwin's explanation of how humans evolved. However, the Legislature expanded it to simply say no limits can be imposed on teachers and students in class talking about "the origin of life."

Intelligent design is presented as an alternative to natural explanations for evolution, but at least one court ruled it out of public schools because it's considered religious doctrine. A federal judge in Pennsylvania last year said intelligent design is not science and is essentially religion, which the U.S. Supreme Court says can't be taught in public schools.

The bill, which took effect with Barbour's signature, passed the Legislature in March.

"No local school board, school superintendent or school principal shall prohibit a public school classroom teacher from discussing and answering questions from individual students on the origin of life," the bill reads.
We are now passing laws to assure teachers that they can do what they are supposed to be doing. But forget about whether this makes sense from a policy standpoint, it's time to call in the religious motive detectives and the conspiracy theorists.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Tony Snow and ID

Tony Snow has been in the news as the new White House press secretary. He has weighed in on the ID-Evolution debate at least once here. I do not think that this column is terribly insightful and he gets some things wrong (as do many), but he is the new press secretary, so we have to listen to him, right?

I do agree with the title- that we should have a rational debate.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Another Successful College Course

Here is an article about another college course on ID that seemed to be quite successful. The professor specializes in the philosophy of science. Seems like there is some momentum for fair and open-minded college classes on ID. Some excerpts:
“It just keeps spinning because people are so uninformed about what is going on. All of the students are now very much aware that the issue is far more complicated than implied by the media,” Roth added.

. . . .

The course delves into the history of the intelligent design movement, beginning with Plato, the first Western philosopher to make an argument for the existence of God based upon the design of this world. Our seemingly miraculous biological design and the fine-tuning of the universe allowing for the existence of life have become the chief supports for this argument. The class also tackled current scientific debates, including Darwin’s argument for natural selection and whether or not intelligent design fits into the category of science as enterprise. Finally, the class discussed the multifaceted question of how this affects religion and morality.

The response generated from Roth’s class has been overwhelmingly positive among students and faculty. . . .

Hat tip to Uncommon Descent.

Rewarding Religious Prejudice #2

As a follow up to my last post, I wanted to point out another obvious problem with Judge Cooper's reasoning: What happens when different citizens support a policy for different reasons and with different motives? What about the citizens who support the sticker on the basis of the science involved? If they are a minority, are they out of luck because a majority supported it for religious reasons? So a good policy with a legitimate secular purpose (encouraging critical thinking) is permanently disallowed because some people supported it for religious reasons?

Also, here is the full text of the sticker, for easy reference:
This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Rewarding Religious Prejudice

As we await the Appeals Court's ruling in the Selman v. Cobb County case (stickers on textbooks), I thought I would point people to Francis Beckwith's very interesting paper entitled "The Court of Disbelief: The Constitution's Article VI Religious Test Prohibition and the Judiciary's Religious Motive Analysis," which is available here. He argues that the manner in which the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment has been interpreted by US courts violates another provision in the Constitution that prohibits religious tests. I might argue the details a little differently, but I agree with him that looking at "motives" of government officials in Establishment Clause cases has become horribly warped.

Beginning on page 16 he discusses the district court's opinion in Selman, in which the judge decided that the school board's actions did have a legitimate secular purpose, in part because the sticker "fosters critical thinking by encouraging students to learn about evolution to make their own assessment regarding its merit.” However, he concluded that the sticker violated the "primary effects" prong of the Lemon test, because a "reasonable observer" would interpret the sticker to convey a message of endorsement of religion, because it "sends a message to those who oppose evolution for religious reasons that they are favored members of the political community,
while the Sticker sends a message to those who believe in evolution that they are political outsiders. . . ." This is, in part, because the "reasonable observer" would "be aware" that religious people prefer calling evolution a theory, not a fact, which is part of the text of the sticker.

This is part of what Beckwith says:
Second, this reasoning presents a Catch-22 that makes it nearly impossible for religious citizens to remedy public policies that they believe are uniquely hostile to their beliefs. For who but the citizens who take religious offense would be the most vocal critics of such policies and the most visible proponents of ways to mitigate them? Consequently, it is difficult to believe that the judge is suggesting that citizens who desire to remedy a religious offense in their public school curricula cannot themselves lobby their government. Yet if political representatives respond to their concerns (just as elected officials might respond to citizens objecting to school policies for non-religious reasons or even to citizens calling for the teaching of evolution), such a response would, under Judge Cooper’s reasoning, raise Establishment Clause concerns. The result is to impose a special burden on the political activity of religious citizens, a burden not placed on secular political participation.

Third, what makes this opinion particularly strange is not that Judge Cooper is relying on the actual motives of religious citizens to dismiss the textbook disclaimer as unconstitutional, though he does indeed do that. Rather, the strangeness of this opinion lies in the judge’s relying on what a third-party may believe about the motives of the law’s citizen supporters based on the history and common understanding of the debate over evolution. Here, the First Amendment has been completely turned on its head. Rather than serving as a protector of believing-citizens and a bulwark against religious prejudice, the coercive power of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, according to Judge Cooper, is triggered for the purpose of limiting the political actions of religious citizens whenever secular citizens’ believe that the political views of their religious neighbors are the result of a type of belief, a religious motive, even if the law under scrutiny has a bona fide secular purpose and is supported by secular reasons. So, in this case, the government rewards secular citizens for their beliefs about religious citizens and punishes religious citizens because of what secular citizens perceive the religious citizens believe. But if government cannot touch beliefs, as the current understanding of the First Amendment seems to indicate (supra I), then this opinion is inconsistent with the Constitution. For its major premise relies entirely on the beliefs of citizens including some of these citizens’ beliefs about other citizens’ beliefs and their religious content.

Does this remind you of anything? Or anything else?

Another post about Selman, with a link to the full text of the district court's opinion, is here.

The oral arguments before the Appeals Court in this case indicate we may see a reversal. Read about it here.