Brunswick County is a largely rural county of about 75 000 people in the southern tip of North Carolina, but it drew national attention in the fall of 2008 when its school board considered adding creationism to the science curriculum. (For a brief report, see RNCSE 2008 Sep–Dec; 28 [5–6]: 4–8.)
According to the Wilmington Star-News (2008 Sep 16), the controversy began at the September 16, 2008, board meeting, when Joel Fanti, a chemical engineer and local parent, condemned the teaching of evolution as "fact" rather than "theory". Fanti also made a curious argument: "I wasn't here 2 million years ago ... If evolution is so slow, why don't we see anything evolving now?" He volunteered to teach creationism himself, to audience applause.
Board chair Shirley Babson responded that evolution was a required subject, although she personally rejected it. She was uncertain whether creationism could legally be added to the science curriculum, but said, "if we can do it, I think we ought to do it." All other board members present also voiced their support for teaching creationism, and superintendent Katie McGee agreed to research the question of its legality. The board's attorney suggested that it might be possible to add creationism to the curriculum as long as evolution was still taught.
The board's receptiveness to the idea of explicitly mandating creationism may seem surprising to longtime observers of the anti-evolutionist movement. Since 1987's Edwards v Aguillard decision prohibited exactly this sort of policy as unconstitutional, most creationism activists have chosen more indirect tactics, such as "intelligent design" or — since Kitzmiller v Dover — "teaching the controversy" or "strengths and weaknesses".
But several members of Brunswick County's school board — in particular Babson, Jimmy Hobbs, and Ray Gilbert — have consistently supported the promotion of particular religious viewpoints on school grounds. For instance, in 2006, Hobbs, Babson, and Gilbert proposed to let Gideons International distribute Bibles in county high schools. (State Port Pilot 2006 March 21) When it was pointed out that Wiccans, Pastafarians, and other religious groups would also have to be permitted to distribute their literature, the proposition was tabled indefinitely (Star-News 2006 May 5).
The next year, Hobbs and Babson pushed for more parental control over the contents of school libraries, expressing concern that Harry Potter's inclusion in school libraries promoted Wiccanism and would lead children to practice witchcraft and animal sacrifice (Star-News 2007 Sep 21). It does not appear that they were successful in changing library policy.
Presumably Hobbs was referring to this history of failed attempts to promote particular religious viewpoints in the Brunswick County schools when he said at the September meeting, "It's really a disgrace for the state school board to impose evolution on our students without teaching creationism. The law says we can't have Bibles in schools, but we can have evolution, of the atheists" (Star-News 2008 Sep 16).
REACTIONS TO THE PROPOSAL
When state education officials were interviewed in the days following the meeting, they were clear on the law. North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said that schools are not allowed to teach creationism as science, and that those that did so are liable to be sued. Edd Dunlap and Tracey Greggs, the chiefs of the science and social studies sections in the state department of public instruction, agreed. Referencing both Edwards v Aguillard and Kitzmiller v Dover, Dunlap explained that creationism and "intelligent design"could be covered in an elective course in religion or philosophy, but could not be taught in science or any other required course, nor could it be taught as fact. Greggs added that creationism could also be included in history class, but would have to be presented alongside other religious perspectives and not specifically promoted (Star-News 2008 Sep 29).
Opinion within the local community was predictably divided. Pro-evolution sentiment was strong; concerned citizens contacted the district, wrote letters to local newspapers, and contacted both NCSE and the Evolution Learning Community at the University of North Carolina's campus in nearby Wilmington, where by coincidence, Richard Leakey was giving a talk on human evolution. Phillip Johnson arrived a week later, at the invitation of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, to discuss "intelligent design".
Local church officials, such as Mary Hart and Father Hector La Chappelle of St Brendan the Navigator Roman Catholic Church in Shallotte, vocally opposed the board's plans (Star-News 2008 Sep 22), while other religious figures supported it just as staunchly. At a forum a month before the November 2008 election, school board candidates were quizzed on their opinions on the issue. The district received letters from as far away as the state of Washington, according to Babson, and the proposal was discussed on numerous national blogs. The high level of nationwide interest in the affair is due largely to the diligent coverage of the Star-News in nearby Wilmington. One of its reporters, Ana Ribeiro, wrote half a dozen articles on the board's proposal, the opinions of board members and candidates, reactions from the community, and the relevant educational laws and policies of North Carolina. (The latest of these, from November 6, 2008, and containing links to the newspaper's previous coverage, is available on-line at http://www.starnewsonline.com/article/20081106/ARTICLES/81106023.)
Perhaps concerned by the attention, the board canceled its monthly meeting for October 2008. Around that time, Babson noted to reporters that, given the critical response and legal advice the board had received, it would probably not try to teach creationism after all — although, she indicated, she would still like to see that happen someday (Star-News 2008 Sep 29).
The next meeting took place on November 6, 2008, shortly after the election. (Pro-creationist Ray Gilbert, incidentally, was unseated in that election by Bud Thorsen, a challenger who was opposed to teaching creationism in science class.) Addressing the board, Fanti said he recognized that creationism could not be added to the science curriculum and suggested that it be taught in a social studies class such as world history instead, alongside other religious belief systems such as the Indian and the Egyptian. At the same time, he argued, the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolutionary theory should be discussed in science class. The "weaknesses" Fanti raised were standard creationist fare; he invoked the standard microevolution/ macroevolution distinction and also asked, "how does evolution propose that mankind came into being when the [sic] particles to human beings has never been observed nor can it be proven?"(North Brunswick Pilot 2008 Nov 12).
The board was unwilling to comment on the issue this time around; the standing members said they needed more information before discussing it again. Shirley Babson requested a written copy of Fanti's suggestions, but also said after the meeting that she knew of no curricula that challenged evolution; however, she did not rule out the possibility of teaching about creationism in social science classes.
On the whole, recent developments in Brunswick have been positive. The board's enthusiasm for teaching creationism has apparently cooled significantly; to judge by their previous activities, tabling discussion of an issue "until more information is available" is generally a prelude to discarding it entirely. With one of the board's strongest supporters of creationism on his way out, and a strong pro-science message provided by local citizens, state officials, and the board's own legal advisors, it is to be hoped that good science education in Brunswick will no longer be threatened by the very body in charge of ensuring its provision.