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Federal Challenges to the Teaching of Evolution (6-17-02)

The final version of H.R. 1, the "No Child Left Behind" education bill, which was signed into law on January 8, 2002 does not contain any mention of evolution. A "Sense of the Senate" resolution added to the Senate version by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) was removed during negotiations between the House and Senate. A modified version of the resolution was added to the explanatory language accompanying the final bill rather than the bill itself. Both in its original and modified form, the Santorum resolution labeled biological evolution as a controversial theory.  The original amendment stated, " It is the sense of the Senate that 1) good science education should prepare students to distinguish the data or testable theories of science from philosophical or religious claims that are made in the name of science; 2) where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why the subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subject." The language was crafted by a leading intelligent design proponent to appear innocuous but to provide a potent propaganda tool for evolution opponents in their efforts at the state and local level. And indeed the Santorum resolution already has been invoked in several states. For more on state actions relating to the teaching of evolution, see AGI's state update.

Most Recent Action

In a letter to the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), Rep. George Miller (D-CA) clarified the meaning and significance of evolution-related language that appeared in the conference report accompanying H.R.1. Miller is the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee and was one of four principals involved in negotiating the final bill. The language, a revision of the Santorum amendment to the Senate bill, has been used in several states as a justification for teaching alternative theories to evolution. In particular, House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-OH) sent a letter -- co-authored by Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) -- claiming that the language supported the teaching of intelligent design creationism. Miller's letter makes clear that such was not the intent of the non-binding language. In his letter to Scott, he states that "the report language should not be construed to promote specific topics within subject
areas." The full letter can be found at In addition, NCSE "has compiled a document from various sources providing accurate information on the legal and pedagogical issues surrounding item 78 (the
so-called Santorum language) in the conference committee report of the No Child Left Behind Act." The document can be downloaded in PDF format at (6/17/02)

In December 2001, the House-Senate conferees removed the Santorum resolution from their final version of H.R. 1, which was subsequently passed by both the House and Senate and sent to the president for his signature.A watered-down version was placed in the conference committee's explanatory report that accompanied the bill. Report language has no force of law.  The report language states the importance of separating the science curriculum and "religious and philosophical claims that are made in the name of science." It cites biological evolution as the example for controversial theories rather than as the only controversial theory. In its entirety: "The conferees recognize that a quality science education should prepare students to distinguish the data and testable theories of science from religious or philosophical claims that are made in the name of science. Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to undertand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics may generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society." Although the language will not appear in the final bill, its incorporation in the conference committee's report will be welcomed by evolution opponents. Indeed, in press releases and presentations to school boards, evolution opponents have repeatedly failed to distinguish between the report and the bill, stating that the bill itself contained Santorum's language. For more on the significance of eliminating the Santorum resolution from the final bill, see a discussion by the National Center for Science Education. (01/22/02)

A day before the Senate completed six weeks of debate on its version of the comprehensive education bill, S.1 (later folded into H.R.1), Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) introduced a two-sentence amendment drafted by evolution opponents. The amendment, presented in the form of a non-binding "Sense of the Senate" resolution, defines "good science education" and encourages teaching the "controversy" surrounding biological evolution. Amidst a flurry of other amendments, the Senate voted 91-8 in favor of the provision on its way to passing the entire bill by the same margin. Earlier, a group of conservative representatives had stripped a science testing provision out of the House counterpart bill in part because of concerns that the tests would include evolution-related questions. For more on the introduction and passage of the Santorum resolution, see AGI's June 19, 2001 special update. A column in the September 2001 issue of Geotimes, entitled "Monkey Business", provides additional analysis and discussion of this issue.

In August 2001, responding to the congressional discord on the teaching of evolution, the leaders of 96 scientific and educational organizations endorsed a letter urging the House-Senate conference committee chairmen for H.R.1 to remove the Santorum resolution. A number of additional organizations signed on to the letter after it was first sent to Capitol Hill on August 22nd with 82 signatures. AGI and 15 of its member societies are among the organizations represented, which also include the National Science Teachers Association and the Association of American Universities. See the AGI's August 23, 2001 special update for the text of the letter. At the time the letter was sent, congressional staff were meeting daily to hammer out a compromise on House-passed and Senate-passed versions of H.R.1, a massive overhaul of federal elementary and secondary education programs. The conference was to have been completed when senators and representatives returned to Washington after Labor Day, but largely due to the events of September 11th, they did not finish until December. President Bush repeatedly urged Congress to present him with a bill. An article in the Sep. 13  Washington Post noted the Santorum resolution as one of several "social" issues dividing conferees.

Although the evolution debate has historically taken place at the state and local level, evolution opponents began a concerted campaign in 2000 to involve Congress and federalize the issue. On May 10, 2000, supporters of intelligent design theory brought their message to Capitol Hill in a series of events for Members of Congress and their staff. A three-hour briefing focused on the scientific evidence for the origin and development of life and the universe as the work of an intelligent designer. The speakers presented their version of the scientific debate between Darwinian evolutionary theory and intelligent design theory. Speakers also addressed the social, moral, and political consequences of Darwinism. Sponsored by the Discovery Institute, the briefing was hosted by the chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, and co-sponsors included Rep. Thomas Petri (R-WI), then expected to be the next chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee (he subsequently was named the committee's vice-chair). The briefing took place as the 106th Congress was debating legislation to overhaul federal K-12 education programs: the precursor to H.R.1 in the following 107th Congress. That briefing is described in AGI's May 11, 2000 special update and in a subsequent column, entitled "Creationists Open a New Front", that appeared in the July 2000 issue of Geotimes.

A month after the briefing, on June 14, 2000, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) gave a speech on the floor of the House responding to a letter he had received from professors at Baylor University criticizing him for sponsoring the May 10th Capitol Hill briefing on intelligent design creationism. He acknowledged University of California Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson and others for drafting his response. His speech, including the Baylor letter, can be found in the Congressional Record.

More information on the background of this controversy is located on the State Challenges of Teaching Evolution page.

Sources:  American Geophysical Union, Library of Congress, National Center for Science Education, National Science Teachers Association, The Washington Post.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program at

Contributed by David Applegate, AGI Government Affairs Program; and AGI/AAPG Geoscience Interns Mary Patterson and Heather Golding.

Last updated: June 17, 2002

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