A controversial bill before the state legislature has educators talking this week. Staunton Delegate Dickie Bell says his proposal would protect teachers and encourage more critical thinking - but opponents say it's just a way to bring religious discussions into public schools.
House Bill 207, sponsored by Staunton Delegate Dickie Bell, has received a lot of backlash, with some saying it would allow religion-based theories - like creationism - to be taught in public schools. But Bell says his opponents are missing the point.
"We certainly didn't intend to create a firestorm with it," said Bell. "The bill is not a lot of things that it's been called already."
The bill has been called a "bill OK-ing intelligent design in science classrooms" and the bill "to teach kids that climate change and evolution may not exist." But Bell, a retired high school teacher, says his bill isn't focused on any of those things.
"Nothing in this section shall be construed to promote or discriminate against any religious or non-religious doctrine," said Bell. "I think that is the key language in the bill."
Bell says the proposal is designed to encourage discussion and debate over what he calls "scientific questions."
"We'll be talking about climate change, we'll be talking about the theory of evolution," said Bell. "A lot of teachers fear allowing that dialogue to take place because they don't know if they're protected so they cut it off."
"It always makes you wonder, well why all of a sudden do we need this?," said Meg Gruber, president of the Virginia Education Association Teachers Union.
Gruber is a veteran high school science teacher turned president of the Virginia Education Association Teachers Union.
"Why do we need this bill? I mean this is part of our curriculum, this is what we do," said Gruber.
Gruber says the bill is unnecessary, and worries it could create confusion if interpreted the wrong way.
"The discussion of creationism to a science teacher is a belief concept," said Gruber. "If you can't test it and you can't measure it, then it doesn't belong in a science classroom."
But Bell insists he's looking out for teachers and students.
"Stop trying to distort it or misrepresent it for what it is not," said Bell. "Good teachers want to teach, and they want to have the freedom to let that conversation flow."
A similar measure went into effect in Tennessee in 2012.
Bell says he is open to tweaking the bill to make it more acceptable to more people. The bill is now pending in a house subcommittee, chaired Bell.