HARRISBURG - A Republican state representative calls it a matter of academic freedom.
Science-education advocates claim it's nothing but a backdoor attempt to allow public schools to discuss Bible-based creationism.
Rep. Stephen Bloom (R., Cumberland) circulated a memo to his colleagues Thursday seeking cosponsors for planned legislation to allow students in public elementary and secondary schools to question or critique "the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories."
In an interview, Bloom said the purpose of his bill was not to supplant what is now taught in classrooms - including, he said, evolution and global warming - but to foster an atmosphere that allows for a free exchange of ideas if a student were to question or disagree with the teaching.
"In the real world, outside of academia, scientific theory is up for all kinds of argument," Bloom said. "I don't think it's right to exclude any particular kind of argument prima facie. If a student wants to discuss a criticism, he or she should be able to."
Bloom rebuffed any suggestion his measure was an attempt to introduce religious teachings in public-school science classes. And he said he did not believe his idea would butt up against the landmark 2005 decision on intelligent design by a federal judge in Pennsylvania. In that case, Kitzmiller v. Dover, Judge John E. Jones III wrote that the teaching of intelligent design was a "relabeling" of creationism, and therefore violated the constitutional separation of church and state.
Bloom said he was not advocating changing curriculum or mandating that anything specific be taught.
"This is not prescribing any religious teaching in the school," he said. "There is no prescription that any religious-based theory be taught."
Steve Miskin, a spokesman for the House Republican caucus, said he was not aware of Bloom's memo and noted that it was not yet in bill form. "It is only a concept," Miskin said, adding that members of his caucus had not discussed the matter and did not yet have a position.
Since 2004, there have been 50 so-called academic freedom bills introduced nationwide. Louisiana and, more recently, Tennessee have adopted them into law.
Bloom's measure would likely be opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, legislative director Andy Hoover said.
"The cosponsorship memo suggests this is the code people use when they want to inject religion into public-school science classrooms," Hoover said. "Let's leave science education to educators, and not pastors and legislators."
Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in California, which advocates to protect the teaching of evolution science in schools, called academic freedom efforts the latest repackaging of creationism.
"People who promote these bills are clearly going after evolution," Scott said. "Because of the various court decisions, they can't overtly promote creationism, so they've found a backdoor way of promoting creationism."
She said many bills like Bloom's have expanded the language to include global warming and cloning, which are "not scientifically controversial, but are socially controversial and important to the religious right."
Scott said the bills create a way for religion to be discussed in the classroom.
"It's not another point of view, it's bad science," said Scott, who predicted that the laws in Louisiana and Tennessee would be challenged in court. "Why would you deliberately teach kids bad science?"