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Counter Evolutionary, Pt. V

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"If we start removing everything that people object to on religious grounds, there won't be much left."

Beth Kramer, a Jefferson County biology teacher.

About 300 people turned out for the Sept. 5 meeting of the Jefferson County school board. Danny Phillips--wearing a slightly-too-large blue blazer, a white shirt, and a red tie--arrived with his lawyer and a handful of supporters. The 50 or so citizens who had signed up to speak were each given one minute to make their point. Among the first to speak was Woody Henry, who identified himself as both a Christian and a paleobiologist. "The question is basically this," he said. "Do we teach science, or do we teach nonscience?" Teachers defended their academic freedom. "If we start removing everything that people object to on religious grounds, there won't be much left," argued Beth Kramer, a Jefferson County biology teacher.

Danny, for his part, began by saying, "This is not a creationism-evolution debate. I do not want creationism taught in the schools." He then argued that the board's job was "to ensure your students' rights to free, open, and uncensored education, where all students hear all information on all issues. You are not to censor one side of the information by giving only the evidence for evolution."

When the public comment session ended, the offending portion of "The Miracle of Life" was shown on two large television monitors. Then, board member Terri Rayburn offered a motion to endorse the teachers' proposed compromise, but she wanted the use of the study guide to be mandatory, not optional. Board member David DiGiacomo, a lawyer, was troubled by the idea of enforcing such a policy. "If we're going to adopt this proposal," he said, "I think we're going to restrict the freedom of teachers. ... The precedent here, it seems to me, is immense. I would be very, very concerned if a teacher were fired because of failing to use the study guide." Besides, he added, "as I review the videotape, it's hard for me to see what can be objectionable. It's a marvelous resource. I cannot and will not support the motion. I don't have any objection with teachers using these materials." Board member Tori Merritts agreed: "I would have a hard time putting [warning] labels on videos."

In the end, the board voted 3 to 1 to overrule Superintendent Wayne Carle and reinstate the video. The teachers who had proposed the compromise were delighted; they got more than they had hoped for.

"I'm not going to drop the issue."

Danny Phillips

After the meeting, Danny was philosophic. "I'm taking it fine," he said. "I understood who the board members were and how they stood on the issues beforehand, and I recognize that there were three members who did not respect my point before they came to the meeting." He vowed to continue his battle. "I'm not going to drop the issue," he said. "There will be further steps taken." Just what those steps might include wasn't clear, although Danny later told a reporter for CBS that he was considering filing suit in federal court charging that his civil rights had been violated.

Defenders of evolution were pleased at the outcome. People for the American Way Vice President Michael Hudson, who followed the case closely from his Boulder, Colo., office, called the school board "courageous and intelligent." Eugenie Scott said, "I was very pleased because the teachers really got what they needed, which is the right to teach as they see fit. Teachers are smart enough to handle controversial material."

In August, school officials in Kentucky ordered that two pages dealing with the big-bang theory be glued together.

The debate over the teaching of evolution in Jefferson County was now over. Radio talk show hosts moved on to other topics, and the school board focused its attention on finding a replacement for Wayne Carle, who has announced his retirement. Elsewhere, however, the controversy lives on.

In August, school officials in Marshall County, Ky., ordered that the district's 5th and 6th grade science textbooks be confiscated so two pages dealing with the big-bang theory could be glued together. "We're not going to teach one theory and not teach the other," Superintendent Kenneth Shadowen told a local newspaper. Meanwhile, in Clayton County, Ga., the school board voted to adopt the language from Alabama's disclaimer on evolution and add a similar statement to all the district's 140,000 science textbooks.

"I don't think this debate is ever going to go away," said a resigned Joseph McInerney.

Garry Wills, in his 1990 book, Under God: Religion and American Politics, reached much the same conclusion in a chapter titled "Refighting Scopes." The Creation story, he wrote, "is not going to go away as a political issue, for the obvious cultural reason that the Bible is not going to stop being the central book in our intellectual heritage."

In other words, Darwin and evolution will always be a threat to those who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. As Danny Phillips himself put it, "The Bible is very clear on the issue of Creation. There's no biblical way to reconcile evolution."



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