Georgia Evolution Lawsuit Is a Fact
A group of parents backed by the ACLU sues over 'theory' sticker
in biology textbooks.
By Ellen Barry and Rennie Sloan
Times Staff Writers
November 9, 2004
ATLANTA — In Cobb County, outside Atlanta, teachers used to tear
pages out of textbooks rather than wrangle with the divisive
topic of evolution. Two years ago, the school board reached a
more modern compromise: On the inside cover of a biology textbook,
a sticker warns that "evolution is a theory, not a fact."
That solution came under fire Monday in an Atlanta District Court,
where a group of Cobb County parents backed by the American Civil
Liberties Union has sued the school district, charging that it
has mingled religion with science by using the sticker.
On the first of what is expected to be a four-day trial, U.S.
District Judge Clarence Cooper heard from all sides: a parent
who said she was outraged when she first saw the textbook; a
Brown University cell biologist who co-wrote the textbook; and
a school board member who described the exhausting process of
reaching a compromise in a community with a large population
of conservative Christians.
Cooper will weigh whether the sticker violates the 1st Amendment
by endorsing religion or entangling religion with government.
Although similar disclaimers are used in school districts throughout
the country, their constitutionality has never been tested in
court, said Michael Manely, a plaintiff's attorney representing
the parents against Cobb County.
"It takes a tremendous amount of money and energy to try a case,"
Manely said. "If there is a bright lining it is that the forces
against science — the folks that want to take us back to the
dark ages — tend to lose far more often."
Seventy-nine years after John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching
evolution in a Tennessee classroom, the theory is still rejected
by many Southerners.
It is the second time this year that Georgia has been the center
of a controversy over the teaching of the subject. In January,
state school superintendent Kathy Cox removed the word "evolution"
from Georgia's teaching standards, calling it a "buzzword that
causes a lot of negative reaction." Under waves of protest from
scientist and teachers, Cox reversed her decision.
When the Cobb County School District distributed the biology
textbook in 2002, parent Marjorie Rogers testified Monday that
she was "stunned" by the tone of certainty in its passages about
"It presented it just blatantly. Evolution is a fact. It did
happen. I was outraged," said Rogers, a lawyer who believes in
the Bible's story of the origin of life. She collected 2,300
signatures on a petition demanding that the books "clearly distinguished
theory from fact."
The petition, and publicity that followed, brought the school
board under enormous pressure, said board member Laura F. Searcy
Searcy, a pediatric nurse practitioner, was infuriated a decade
ago to discover that her children were not being taught evolution,
which she described as "the basis of biological science in the
21st century." That discovery — where pages had been ripped out
of her children's textbooks — contributed to her decision to
run for the school board, she said.
Two years ago, when the biology textbook was introduced, the
school board could not ignore the objections of "a large segment
of the community," Searcy said. After discussion, the board voted
to print a disclaimer in nonreligious language that, its defenders
say, encourages inquiry and critical thinking.
"I looked at it like you would an informed consent," Searcy said.
"You have a large population in your public school system that
feels very strongly. The question is, can you be sensitive and
tolerant to their very deep moral feelings?"
The disclaimer reads: "This textbook contains material on evolution.
Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living
things. This material should be approached with an open mind,
studied carefully, and critically considered."
But the textbook's co-author, Kenneth Miller, said the disclaimer
used the word "theory" in a colloquial way that suggested it
was "a guess, or a little hunch." In science, theories are overarching
explanations — in evolution's case, "widely supported by millions
of facts," he said. Moreover, it is misleading to single out
evolution for scrutiny when all science should be approached
with a spirit of inquiry, he said.
"There is nothing special about evolution," said Miller, a biology
professor at Brown University. "Evolution is as well grounded
as our understanding of cell biology or human physiology."
Some have compared this week's trial to the 1925 Scopes "monkey
trial," which drew revered lawyers William Jennings Bryan and
Clarence Darrow to a hot and crowded courthouse where scores
of journalists came to watch the forces of fundamentalism and
modern science square off.
That the argument has not been settled is exasperating to Diane
Buckner, 59, a Cobb County book dealer who sat in on Monday's
"It makes us look like yahoos to have a sticker like that on
a textbook," she said.
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