Senate makes ‘legislative history’ by approving the teaching of intelligent design in public schools

By Matthew Young, RealWV

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – “Intelligent design has been struck down as impermissible to be taught in public schools because the creative, the prime being, the God, the supernatural – creationism – is outside the realm of established, recognized scientific theories.” 

That’s what Senate Minority leader Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, told colleagues in the Senate Chamber Tuesday while expressing his opposition to the Education Committee’s substitute for SB 280. Introduced by Sen. Amy Grady, R-Mason, SB 280, if enacted, would allow theories – such as intelligent design – to be taught in public classrooms.

As explained by Grady, who serves as chair of the Senate’s Education Committee, “The committee substitute for this bill provides that no public school board, school superintendent, or school principal shall prohibit a public school classroom teacher from discussing or answering questions from students about scientific theories about how the universe, and/or life came to exist.”

The text of the introduced version of the bill stated that its intent was “allowing teachers in public schools that include any one or more of grades kindergarten through 12 to teach intelligent design as a theory of how the universe and/or humanity came to exist.” The reworded committee substitute states: “Allowing a public school classroom teacher to discuss scientific theories of how the universe and/or life came to exist.”

Senate Minority Leader Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, speaks in opposition of a committee substitute for SB 280 during Tuesday’s floor session in the Senate Chamber.

In a debate that became, at times, contentious, Grady and Woelfel sparred over the language of the bill. Woelfel expressed concern at the lack of any definition of the term “scientific theories,” to which Grady stated that the exclusion of definitions was intentional as to encourage discussion. 

“Intelligent design, a lot of times people make that synonymous with creationism,” Grady said. “It is not synonymous with creationism. It’s just a theory that scientists have that says there is a more intelligent being, or a more intelligent something that would create life.”

“This bill doesn’t tell teachers to teach intelligent design,” Grady added. “It allows teachers to discuss theories. In the bill, you don’t see the words ‘intelligent design’ anywhere because we want to promote the discussion of theories and different ideas.”

While the words “intelligent design” were stricken from the committee’s substitute, allowing for its teaching in public schools was the bill’s original  intent upon introduction. 

“Is intelligent design permitted to be taught in the classroom under your bill?” Woelfel asked.

In response, Grady said, “It would be permitted to be discussed in the classroom, yes.”

Unsatisfied with Grady’s answer, Woelfel persisted.

“Is it permitted to be taught in the classroom, by a teacher, intelligent design, under your bill?” 

Grady again failed to provide a direct answer, saying, “The words ‘taught,’ ‘teach,’ or ‘must teach’ are not in the bill. It’s an open discussion is what we’re talking about.”

Woelfel remained unsatisfied.

“Respectfully, I’m going to keep asking the question,” Woelfel told Grady. “Specifically, is intelligent design permitted to be taught in a classroom under your bill?”

Grady took a brief moment to confer with Senate Counsel Hank Hager before responding.

“Based on counsel’s determination, I do not believe it would prevent them from teaching it,” Grady said.

“Okay,” Woelfel replied. “Let me ask you, respectfully, one more time. Is it permissible for a teacher in West Virginia, under your bill, to teach intelligent design?”

“I believe so, yes,” Grady said.

Education Committee Chair Amy Grady, R-Mason, confers with Counsel Hank Hager during Tuesday’s floor session in the Senate Chamber.

At the conclusion of his questioning, Woelfel addressed all Senate members.

“I’m not going to change anybody’s vote on this bill,” Woelfel said. “What we’re doing is making some legislative history here for when the case goes to court.”

“Intelligent design, now that we’ve learned it is permitted to be taught under this bill, is going to render the bill – in my view – unconstitutional,” Woelfel noted, adding that the bill’s vagueness will also result in potential challenges to its constitutionality. 

“If you have a bill, it has to be specific,” Woelfel added. “It can’t be vague. People have to know what the bill says so they can follow the bill. For those reasons, I’m going to be a ‘no’ vote because I believe a court will hold this bill to be unconstitutional.” 

To close deliberation, Grady said, “The bill is about encouraging our students to think, encouraging our students to ask questions, and encouraging our teachers to be able to answer them.”

“It promotes learning,” Grady added. “It promotes our students to think, and that’s what we want.”

The Senate adopted the committee substitute for SB 280 by a vote of 31 to two, with Woelfel and Sen. Mike Caputo, D-Marion, both voting against passage. Wayne County Sen. Robert Plymale, the body’s only other Democratic member, was absent from voting. The bill will now be forwarded to the House of Delegates for their consideration.

RealWV will provide updates regarding the status of Grady’s bill as additional information is made available. 

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