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Evolution battles rage

On Jan. 18, Dover, Pa., became the first public school district in the nation to mandate the introduction of intelligent design in the classroom. Just days before, on Jan. 14, a judge in Cobb County, Ga., ruled that disclaimer stickers inside science textbooks that said that evolution is “a theory, not a fact” are unconstitutional and must be removed. In Dover, parents are suing the school board over the statement, and in Cobb County, the school board has decided to appeal the judge’s ruling: The scene has been set, the gauntlet thrown, and both sides of the evolution debate are vowing to fight on.

Last October, the Dover school board voted to revise its high school biology curriculum to include a statement about intelligent design. The curriculum they agreed upon states: “Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s Theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origins of life will not be taught.” The board’s decision also required that science teachers read a four-paragraph statement about intelligent design and how there are gaps in Darwin’s theory of evolution at the beginning of class discussion on evolution. However, the district’s biology teachers refused to read the statement to their classes, noting in a letter to the district superintendent that the statement is not good science and that teaching intelligent design would violate their professional standards. Instead, school administrators read the statement to the classes.

In mid-December, the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of 11 parents who believe the intelligent design policy not only harms their children’s science education, but also violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (the separation of church and state). The objective of the lawsuit, which will go to trial in September, is to get the board to drop this biology curriculum requirement that intelligent design be mentioned, says Eric Rothschild, an attorney with Pepper Hamilton LLP in Philadelphia who is representing the Dover parents. The members of the school board have made their own religious beliefs part of the high school’s science curriculum, Rothschild says.

In Georgia, such improper entanglement of government and religion is what a district judge cited when he ruled against textbook disclaimers, after hearing arguments at trial in November. The judge said that the stickers, which have been in textbooks since 2002, send a message that the school board endorses “the viewpoint of Christian fundamentalists and creationists.” He said that although he saw no evidence that the school board was directly trying to promote religion, the “informed, reasonable observer would perceive the school board to be aligning itself with proponents of religious theories of origin,” thus constituting a violation of the Establishment Clause.

The Cobb County school board issued statements in the days following the judge’s ruling saying that the textbook stickers are a “reasonable and evenhanded guide to science instruction,” and that “the judge’s ruling stands as an intrusion into local control of school policy and administration.” The board is appealing the decision, with lawyers representing the district agreeing to provide representation at no additional charge.

The Cobb County “theory not fact” disclaimer comes from a long line of creationist-inspired disclaimers and policies, says Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) in Oakland, Calif. And while the Dover case is the first case where intelligent design has been directly put into a curriculum, a number of similar policies are popping up all around the country that use disclaimers and other attempts to introduce anti-evolution policies into public school science curricula, Scott says. As of mid-January, battles were brewing in 14 states, including Michigan, Maryland and Wisconsin, where local school districts have introduced or mandated teaching of alternatives to or the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution.

One thing is for certain, says Mark Wilson, a paleontologist at the College of Wooster in Ohio — these clashes are not going to go away anytime soon. “We as scientists can’t dismiss this as a sideshow because it’s much larger than that,” he says. The people arguing against evolution are becoming more and more sophisticated with their attacks and approaches, he says, so scientists need to become more sophisticated in their responses.

Megan Sever

For continuing coverage of the evolution curriculum debate and further information on the above cases, see Geotimes' archives.

Links:

"More challenges to evolution," Web Extra, Geotimes, Nov. 12, 2004
"Evolution disclaimers unconstitutional," Web Extra, Geotimes, Jan. 13, 2005

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