Indiana House Majority Leader Bill Friend knew that just asking constituents about the teaching of “intelligent design” in public school science classes could stir controversy.
“We were trying to see if this is a hot-button issue for people,” said Friend, one of 36 Republican lawmakers who included the issue on a survey.
All they had to do was look at the national headlines.
In Dover, Pa., last week, all eight Republican school board members who had voted to require the teaching of intelligent design — the belief that a supernatural hand guided the development of life — were voted out of office.
The same day, intelligent design advocates were cheering as the Kansas Board of Education voted 6-4 to require students to study doubts about evolution.
“Are we more like Pennsylvania or are we more like Kansas?” Friend, R-Macy, asked. “That’s what we’re trying to find out.”
Friend majored in biology and chemistry in college. To find proof that species change over time, he said, people need look no further than the seats at Wrigley Field, a tight squeeze for today’s heftier Chicago Cubs fans than for fans 10 or 20 years ago.
He’s also a Baptist Sunday school teacher who is, he said, a creationist at heart. “I’ve always found it hard to believe a zillion years ago we crawled out of a swamp.”
Friend sees intelligent design as “an excellent compromise.” But he is uncomfortable with state-imposed mandates.
“Once we mandate certain curriculum be taught, where do you stop?” he said.
At least one state lawmaker, Rep. Bruce Borders, R-Jasonville, has said he would file a bill requiring the teaching of intelligent design in public schools if no other lawmaker does. People in both parties have said they would support the idea.
Friend, though, said passage of any such bill is by no means certain.
“Historically, we change very slowly,” he said of Hoosiers’ own evolution on issues and laws.
Next year is an election year in Indiana, with all 100 representatives and half of the 50-member Senate on the ballot.
Asked whether the Pennsylvania election trouncing of the intelligent design advocates may give Indiana lawmakers pause, Friend said: “I think it does have an impact.”
Bill Blomquist, a political science professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said Indiana’s politicians should be concerned.
“Look at the backlash when Congress and (Florida) Governor Jeb Bush decided to get involved with the Terri Schiavo case,” he said, referring to the brain-damaged Florida woman who died after the courts ordered that tubes supplying nutrition and hydration be removed.
Polls do show strong support nationwide for teaching a biblical version of the origins of life. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll taken nationwide in September showed that 53 percent of Americans believe humans were created “exactly as the Bible describes.”
Robert Schmuhl, professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame, called the intelligent design debate “another battle in the culture wars.”
“We’ll see if it takes root and becomes one of the issues that drives the (2006) campaigns.”
State Rep. Ed Mahern, D-Indianapolis, thinks this is the latest in a series of “wedge” issues Republicans have used to ignite their base.
“This is their Pledge of Allegiance or Ten Commandments issue for 2006,” he said.
There is no question, Blomquist said, that deeply held views can be fanned to boost voter turnout. But he pointed to the Pennsylvania vote as proof that such issues can be double-edged swords.
“That’s the beauty of it,” he said. “That’s the danger of it.”
State Rep. Luke Messer, a Shelbyville Republican who is executive director of the Indiana Republican Party, said the issue is not politically driven and doubted that in 2006 anyone would win or lose on the strength of intelligent design.
He and House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, were among the 36 who quizzed constituents on this issue.
“My personal belief is there has to be a master designer who has placed life on Earth,” Bosma said. “The question is, do we require that to be taught as part of the curriculum in science class? That’s a tough question.”
Just asking it doesn’t signal agreement, he said, adding that the GOP legislative agenda next year will focus primarily on property tax relief, government reform and other education issues.
In the short session that begins Jan. 4 in the House and, by law, ends March 14, “it will be tough for the (intelligent design) debate to even occur.”
Lawmakers are just beginning to get the results of their constituent surveys. Initially, they show strong support for including intelligent design in science lessons.
State Rep. Woody Burton, R-Greenwood, said that of about 180 responses he received, 63 percent favored intelligent design being taught alongside evolution. Rep. Phil Hinkle, R-Indianapolis, said an early tally showed 53 percent of his constituents who responded to his survey favor intelligent design being added to the curriculum.
Hinkle said he believes in God, Jesus and voting the will of his constituents. And he doesn’t believe evolution is science.
But a bill adding intelligent design to the science curriculum might not get his vote.
“I’m not real sure we ought to be getting into this,” Hinkle said. “I think government needs to get the heck out of education.”
The vote in Dover was preceded by a still-ongoing federal lawsuit in which the parents of 11 students sued over the school board’s decision to include intelligent design in the curriculum.
At least one Indianapolis mom said she’d do the same if Indiana’s lawmakers take that route.
“I tell you, I’d be down there filing a lawsuit so fast if somebody began teaching my kid intelligent design,” said Carol Reeves, a Butler University English professor whose 8-year-old daughter attends Indianapolis Public School 91.
“This,” she said of intelligent design, “is not science.”
Michael Bruner, a Whiteland engineer whose four children are now grown, said he believes intelligent design can be called a science, though not scientific theory.
Evolution, he said, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in all respects. He wants intelligent design presented “as another approach, a concept that may be a framework for investigation.”
Gary Belovsky, a professor of biological sciences at Notre Dame, said evolution is science and is not contradictory with faith in God. This month, he said, the Vatican reaffirmed Pope John Paul II’s 1996 statement that evolution is “more than a hypothesis because there is proof.”
There is no scientifically tested proof, and cannot be, that a greater power controlled the development on Earth, he said, adding that the Pennsylvania vote to keep intelligent design out of science lessons “warmed my heart.”
He’s frustrated, he said, that a debate that should have been settled a century ago still rages.
“This shouldn’t even be an issue.”
But at least some Indiana lawmakers disagree.
“The good thing is we’re going to have a debate,” Burton said. “I think that’s healthy.”
Where did we come from?
Maintains humans and all other organisms have a common ancestry going back almost 4 billion years. Mutations and the process of natural selection, in which desirable traits are passed on to future generations, result in differences over time. Supporters say only evolution has scientific proof.
Maintains that an intelligent cause, rather than the process of natural selection, best explains the complexity of life on Earth.
Maintains that God created the universe. Some, though not all, adherents believe life on Earth is only a few thousand years old and take literally the Genesis account in the Bible.