A suburban American school board found itself in court yesterday after it tried to placate Christian fundamentalist parents by placing a sticker on its science textbooks saying evolution was “a theory, not a fact”.
Atlanta’s Cobb County school board, the second largest board in Georgia, added the sticker two years ago after a 2,300 strong petition attacked the presentation of “Darwinism unchallenged”. Some parents wanted creationism – the theory that God created humans according to the Bible version – to be taught alongside evolution.
Shortly after the stickers were put on the books, six parents launched a legal challenge, with the support of the the American Civil Liberties Union. It started yesterday.
“I’m a strong advocate for the separation of church and state,” one of the parents, Jeffrey Selman, told the Associated Press. “I have no problem with anybody’s religious beliefs. I just want an adequate educational system.”
The board says the stickers were motivated by a desire to establish a greater understanding of different view points. “They improve the curriculum, while also promoting an attitude of tolerance for those with different religious beliefs,” said Linwood Gunn, a lawyer for Cobb County schools.
The controversy began when the school board’s textbook selection committee ordered $8m ( £4.3m) worth of the science books in March 2002. Marjorie Rogers, a parent who does not believe in evolution, protested and petitioned the board to add a sticker and an insert setting out other explanations for the origins of life.
“It is unconstitutional to teach only evolution,” she said. “The school board must allow the teaching of both theories of origin.”
Her efforts galvanised the fundamentalist community.
“God created earth and man in his image,” another parent, Patricia Fuller, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Leave this garbage out of the textbooks. I don’t want anybody taking care of me in a nursing home some day to think I came from a monkey.”
Wendi Hill, one of the parents who signed the petition, said: “We believe the Bible is correct in that God created man. I don’t expect the public school system to teach only creationism, but I think it should be given its fair share.”
Cobb county achieved what it believed to be a compromise by adding stickers to the books which read: “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 secular parents believed the board had been browbeaten.
“I’m shocked Cobb County is handling it this way,” said Gina Stubbart, who served on the textbook selection committee. “The average person knows evolution is a widely accepted scientific theory.”
This year Georgia’s schools superintendent, Kathy Cox, removed the word “evolution” from the state’s science teaching standards, but she quickly backtracked after receiving nearly 1,000 complaints.
In 1987, the supreme court ruled that creationism was a religious belief that could not be taught in public schools along with evolution.
Since then creationism has been repackaged as the theory of “intelligent design”.
This contends that life on Earth results from a purposeful design rather than random development and that a higher intelligence is guiding this process.
Pennsylvania’s Dover area school board has already voted to teach intelligent design.
The hearing in Georgia will have to establish whether intelligent design is in fact a religious theory; and if so, whether the stickers which mention neither intelligent design, nor religion by name, violate the separation of church and state.
The issue of creationism in schools has long been a point of contention between fundamentalists and secularists in the US. In 1925, John Scopes went on trial for teaching evolution in Dayton, Tennessee, in what became known as the monkey trial.
It ended with Scopes being fined $100 for violating a Tennessee law that forbade the teaching of “any theory that denies the story of divine creation as taught by the Bible and to teach instead that man was descended from a lower order of animals”.