Curriculum

Judge Orders Removal of Evolution Disclaimers

By Sean Cavanagh — January 19, 2005 4 min read
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A federal judge in Georgia has declared that a district’s practice of labeling evolution “a theory, not a fact” on stickers placed on science textbooks amounts to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper last week ordered officials in the Cobb County school system to remove the stickers immediately. They have been affixed to texts for middle and high school biology classes.

The case has been closely watched, in part because similar legal disputes have arisen recently in at least two other school districts, including one in Dover, Pa., where a group of teachers has objected to a proposal that they introduce students to the concept of “intelligent design.” That belief holds that an unspecified creator, or designer, played a role in the development of natural phenomena, including human life.

The Cobb County stickers stated: “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.”

Parent Complaints

That language was approved by the 102,000-student district’s school board in 2002, after parents complained that a new set of science textbooks favored the theory of evolution too heavily over religiously based views. Another group of parents later sued to remove the stickers, saying they amounted to promotion of religion in public schools.

Judge Cooper, sitting in Atlanta, ruled that, even though the sticker did not specifically advocate or even mention faith, a reasonable person would interpret its message as being supportive of religion. The sticker “conveys an impermissible message of endorsement, and tells some citizens that they are political outsiders while telling others that they are political insiders,” he said. “The school board has effectively improperly entangled itself with religion by appearing to take a position.”

Moreover, the stickers mislead students into thinking that evolution theory is “only a highly questionable ‘opinion’ or ‘hunch,’ ” the judge wrote, rather than the dominant view of life’s origins, widely accepted by the scientific community. The sticker also “plays on the colloquial or popular” definition of a theory, he said. Scientists typically define theories as explanations that have been thoroughly vetted and supported through several lines of evidence. (“Pa. School Officials, Science Groups Split Over New Biology Curriculum,” Dec. 1, 2004.)

In a statement, Cobb County school officials voiced disappointment with the ruling, calling the stickers a “reasonable and evenhanded” approach. The school board has not yet decided whether to appeal the ruling.

Other Districts Watching

Glenn Branch, the deputy director of the Oakland, Calif.-based National Center for Science Education, which supports the teaching of evolution, saw the ruling as particularly significant. Unlike previous evolution cases, he noted, the court rejected a statement with language that critics believe indirectly, rather than explicitly, promoted religion. The sticker used what amounted to “code words,” Mr. Branch argued, by attempting to imply that evolution is a flawed theory.

Other districts nationwide would be reluctant to use such disclaimers, as a result of the ruling, Mr. Branch predicted. But, he also noted that the decision was “narrowly worded” and might not directly affect other situations, such as the dispute in Pennsylvania’s Dover district.

That case stems from the 3,600-student district’s decision last fall to revise its science curriculum to state that students “will be aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution, including, but not limited to, intelligent design.”

Dover school leaders also approved an additional, four-paragraph statement, further explaining the district’s position on evolution and intelligent design, which was to be read to students as they were introduced to studies about the origins of life, possibly as soon as last week. In Dover’s biology classes, that topic is taught in 9th grade.

But after seven science teachers in the district objected to reading the statement, Superintendent Richard Nilsen on Jan. 7 agreed to have administrators read it to students instead, while teachers stepped out of their classrooms. The district also planned to allow students who object to the statement to leave temporarily as well, said Brian Burch, a spokesman for the Thomas More Law Center, the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based nonprofit group representing the district.

The teachers’ objections arose about a month after the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington advocacy group, filed suit in federal court in Harrisburg, Pa., seeking to halt the use of the intelligent-design language. Witold J. Walczak, a lawyer for the ACLU, said he expects that case to go to trial this spring.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2005 edition of Education Week as Judge Orders Removal of Evolution Disclaimers

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