Conservatives Lose First Evolution Vote in Texas

Conservatives Lose First Evolution Vote in Texas

AUSTIN (KXAN) – The drama over the potential inclusion of creationism or intelligent design in Texas biology curriculum is over for now as a coalition of six Democrats and two Republicans defeated an amendment that would have maintained discussion of evolution’s “weaknesses.”

The Texas vote on evolution was in the crosshairs of both state and national media this week because textbook publishers cater to Texas because of its high-volume purchases. If Texas chose to make significant changes to the science standards, other states would likely be forced to follow suit. The standards, once approved on final reading in March, will stand for 10 years.

Member Cynthia Dunbar (R-Richmond) made the motion for the controversial amendment, which was to re-incorporate the phrase “strengths and weaknesses” into the discussion of evolution in state biology curriculum. That’s the way the standard has been for at least 10 years now — with no real problems — but liberal lobbying groups such as the Texas Freedom Network fought against the inclusion of the language, saying it had become a code phrase used by groups such as the Discovery Institute to open the door to a discussion of intelligent design or creationism in the classroom.

Dunbar vehemently denied the issue of “strengths and weaknesses” had anything to do with religion. Instead, Dunbar said stripping the language would stifle academic freedom and force teachers to tell their students they could not discuss all sides to evolution in the classroom. She also said current standards had never faced a significant court challenge and were, therefore, safer.

Conservative groups have lobbied heavily against the change. During testimony yesterday, parent Angela Weissgarber accused those who wanted to strip the language of stifling free speech.

“Censoring our students ability to ask questions or participate in critical analysis in the theory of evolution smacks of ideologies that are not American,” Weissgarber said.

Bob Craig, who voted down Dunbar’s motion, said he was perfectly comfortable deleting the language, since other language supported evaluating all theories with scientific evidence. Craig said he didn’t want the science curriculum to be a repeat of last year’s English-language arts vote, in which SBOE members chose to overrule the wishes of the state’s English teachers on grammar.

Dunbar’s amendment failed initially, 7-7, as Rene Nunez (D-El Paso) was absent from the meeting at the time of the vote. Later, Nunez returned and cast a “no” vote, 7-8.

Those who joined Dunbar included Terri Leo (R-Spring), science teacher Barbara Cargill (R-The Woodlands), Gail Lowe (R-Lampasas), Don McLeroy (R-Bryan), David Bradley (R-Beaumont) and Ken Mercer (R-San Antonio).

While his colleagues carefully refrained from the use of the “R” word – religion — Mercer made passionate statements about the ability of Christians to understand evolution but support other theories. He noted persecution against Christians who failed to toe the evolution line.

That group of seven conservatives was enough for Dunbar to win her vote, as long as she picked up an additional Republican or Democrat. However, two moderate Republicans — Pat Hardy (R-Weatherford) and Geraldine “Tincy” Miller (R-Dallas) — sided with the Democrats on the vote against the strengths and weaknesses language. Rick Agosto, a Democrat out of San Antonio who is frequently the swing vote in favor of conservative motions, said he would have to represent the interests of his constituents and chose to vote with the anti-strengths and weaknesses bloc.

This is only the first of a number of votes on the science curriculum. Thursday’s meeting was the committee of the whole. Friday, the full board will pass language on first reading for the state’s science curriculum. In March, the full board will pass language on second, and final, reading.