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New Tactic Used To Push Teaching Creation Theory

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VISTA, CALIF.--Conservative Christians who control the school board here have adopted a policy on science teaching that many fear is part of a sophisticated campaign to legitimize the teaching of creationism.

By a 3-to-2 vote, the five-member board last month endorsed a policy for the Vista Unified School District stating that "scientific evidence that challenges any theory in science should be presented'' in science classes.

The policy further states that "no theory of science shall be taught dogmatically and no student shall be compelled to believe or accept any theory presented in the curriculum.''

Deidre Holliday, the board's president and a member of the self-described "biblical literalist'' majority, said the policy is designed to quiet a misperception that the board majority is seeking to infuse the science curriculum with religious dogma.

Moreover, those who charge that the policy is religiously motivated are attacking "a straw man,'' she said, because they fear that evolutionary theory cannot withstand criticism.

Community leaders in this small town north of San Diego who oppose the effort concede that, on its face, the policy appears relatively innocuous and in line with the majority's stated goal of widening the scope of scientific discussion.

But they note that the district had never had a written policy on science teaching before, and that a previous version of the new policy encouraged the teaching of "weaknesses in the theory of evolution.''

And, they add, Ms. Holliday and John Tyndall--a member of the conservative bloc who led the effort to change the policy--have created an atmosphere of mistrust by publicly espousing creationist tenets and characterizing evolution as a "theory in crisis.''

"If you'd listened to the debate and attended the meetings that led up to [this point], then you would have ample reason to be concerned,'' said Thomas Conry, the president of the Vista Teachers Association.

Researchers who follow the development of creationist philosophy say that the board's actions and public statements represent a relatively new development in the longstanding debate between proponents of evolution and divine creation.

Creationists, they say, are cleverly appropriating the jargon of science to mask the religious doctrine behind their efforts to oust evolution from its central place in the curriculum.

A Gathering of Opponents

Gathered around a table in the home of Larry Lovell, a marine biologist who has organized public resistance to the policy, several parents and teachers one day last month expressed disbelief at the board's action and distrust of its motives.

The group conceded that the installation of a conservative board majority in January seems to have tapped an underlying current of fundamentalism in the community.

Yet, they were shocked that the conservatives on the board seem so willing to openly attack a theory that the state's science curriculum framework--widely considered a model for science reform--recognizes as a unifing theme of science.

They noted that many parents commute daily from this bedroom community of 79,000 to scientific and technical jobs at the many oceanographic and other scientific enterprises that dot the coast.

Many of these parents, they agreed, must keep informed on the latest thinking in evolutionary theory as part of their jobs. Few of them are likely to believe that scientifically acceptable challenges to evolution exist.

But the battle lines here between the scientific and the spiritual are far from clearly drawn.

Peter Welch, a middle school science teacher and an evangelical Christian, said he is angry that the board appears poised to impose beliefs on his children that he does not share. Evolution, he believes, is "God's tool.''

"I don't understand why these people want to force me to read Genesis in a way that I don't read it,'' he said.

'Green Light' for Creationism?

Mr. Lovell, a parent of two Vista students, said he tried to thwart the intent of the policy by insisting that it include specific references to the need for "scientific evidence.''

But he said he has resigned himself to the fact that the board is likely to devise its own definition of what constitutes a scientific challenge to evolutionary theory.

Despite the passions aroused by the debate, most partisans on both sides are unwilling to speculate how the new policy will affect instruction. District officials, including the science specialists, oppose the policy.

Mr. Conry, for example, who in January publicly endorsed Ms. Holliday's disavowal of efforts to infuse science with creationism, angrily recanted his support, stating that he now believes the board majority "does not respect teachers.''

Mr. Tyndall said, however, that he believes that any changes will come from teachers themselves.

"If they have the resources and the inclination, they can present a better balanced view of evolution, and students can make up their own minds,'' he said.

But Mr. Welch, the middle school teacher, said some students have already begun to charge teachers with "lying'' in class when they discuss elements of evolutionary theory.

Eugenie C. Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a Berkeley, Calif.-based organization that tracks challenges to the teaching of evolution called the new policy "a green light for parents who want to harass teachers into teaching creationism.''

State education officials said they are unlikely to intervene in the situation, leaving parents here to look to the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union for help. The A.C.L.U. has warned the board that it will file suit if creationism is taught in Vista.

But developments so far will probably embolden like-minded boards elsewhere to emulate the strategy used here, Ms. Scott and others predicted.

Targeting a Legal Loophole

She said the efforts of the Vista board are the most public move to date by "new creationists'' to influence science curricula in public schools, although she is tracking similar cases in small districts in other states, notably Ohio.

She led a symposium at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science this year during which a scientific panel said that the new tactics are designed to exploit a loophole in the U.S. Supreme Court's 1987 landmark ruling on creationism.

Writing for the majority in Aguillard v. Edwards, Associate Justice William Brennan struck down a Louisiana law mandating "equal time'' for evolution and creationism in the curriculum, arguing that the law lacked a clear secular purpose and, therefore, violated the First Amendment's ban on government establishment of religion. (See Education Week, June 24, 1987.)

The law has effectively kept outright creationism out of the classroom, Ms. Scott said.

But in the opinion, Justice Brennan also wrote that "teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind ... might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction.''

Ms. Scott said the wording inadvertently deals a dangerous blow to the teaching of evolution because it encourages those who falsely believe that science recognizes alternatives to the theory.

The Institute for Creation Research, which is located near Vista, quickly seized on that passage.

In an issue of its newsletter Impact, published shortly after the Aguillard ruling, it encouraged readers to challenge efforts "to restrict the right of teachers to teach 'a variety of scientific theories.'''

School boards and teachers, meanwhile, were encouraged "to stress the scientific evidences and arguments'' against evolution.

Ms. Scott said the Vista policy is an offshoot of that campaign.

"That's why this ... policy is so clever,'' she said. "It takes the approach of hiding below yet another layer of verbiage, but, in this manifestation, it is completely stripped of its religious overtones.''

John Morris, the I.C.R.'s associate director, declined several requests to be interviewed for this story.

William Thwaites, a biology professor at San Diego State University who has followed the creationist movement since the 1970's, said that discussions with Ms. Holliday led him to believe that she, like many creationists, seems to believe that there is now a developing, scientifically sound basis for their beliefs.

"They say, 'These guys that you regard as legitimate are using the same words, so why are you picking on us?''' Mr. Thwaites said.

'Abrupt Appearance'

He noted, for example, that some creationists recently have been attracted to a controversial school of thought proposing that the development of life has been characterized by lengthy periods of equilibrium, punctuated by the "abrupt'' appearances of species over a relatively short span of geological time.

Creationists misuse the concept, arguing instead that science is now confirming the "abrupt appearance'' of life described in the biblical account of Genesis.

While the term "abrupt appearance'' has yet to surface publicly in the Vista debate, Ms. Holliday last month appeared to support the creationist version of the theory on a syndicated radio program hosted by the conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan.

She said that the renowned Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould--the co-developer of a theory called "punctuated equilibrium'' and an outspoken critic of creationism--seems in his work to be validating a sudden-creation model as an alternative to evolution.

'Intelligent Design'

In an interview last week, Mr. Tyndall also pointed to Mr. Gould's work as evidence that there are "conflicting theories'' of evolution. A believer in the "inerrant word of the Bible,'' Mr. Tyndall does not necessarily see an unresolvable conflict between science and Scripture.

"Scientifically, I can't prove Genesis,'' he said. "I can't prove one way or another how old the Earth is. But evolutionists have not proven, and cannot prove, the origins of life.''

Mr. Tyndall, who works for the I.C.R., also embraces "intelligent-design theory,'' which scientists describe as a bit of pseudoscience that is gaining currency in creationist circles.

Biologists dismiss the notion of "intelligent design,'' primarily because it implies the presence of an omniscient, supernatural "designer,'' whose existence can neither be confirmed nor denied scientifically.

Earlier this year, Mr. Tyndall lost a bid to have a textbook-review committee approve as a supplemental science text a book called Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins. The book is often touted by creationists working to change science curricula.

The committee rejected the book, arguing that its approach is "based on the unproven assumption of intelligent design.''

Jordan Budd, a staff lawyer for the San Diego County chapter of the A.C.L.U., said that dressing up creationism to look like science is not likely to fool a judge should a suit be filed.

"If they want to call it 'intelligent design,' it remains a religiously motivated and inspired challenge to accepted scientific theory,'' he said.

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