Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Evolution Activism

Grantsburg has gone through several religious controversies precipitated by actions of the school board, but we were not involved at the time because we had no children in school. Blaise is the medical advisor for the district and the unofficial football team physician. When the first issue arose several years ago, we wrote a letter to School Board President David Ahlquist, asking him to abstain from voting on religious issues because he has a conflict of interest as a Baptist youth minister.

This time around, Blaise was very interested because evolution is a deeply personal matter to him. He went to Catholic schools in New York before they were allowed to teach evolution. He subsequently attended Cornell University and majored in biology. He initially rebelled against the church for withholding the truth. However, several years later, he regained his faith after continuing to study evolution further. He is now on the church council for Faith Lutheran Church in Grantsburg.

We were appalled when the school board decided to teach "other theories of origin". Hoping that this move was made out of naiveté rather than ignorance or frank religious dogmatism, Blaise immediately started to talk about the issue. This caused some conflict in the health care community. The clinic manager and head nurse at the hospital have strong religious convictions and are conservative Christians. The nursing home's head nurse is the school board president's wife. In the past, she gave Blaise a book entitled Refuting Evolution. Among the supposed refutations is that even Galileo, a church rebel, believed in creation. Of course, he lived several hundred years before Darwin when there was no "theory" other than creationism, but that fact does not seem to trouble the author of that book. One of the other school board members who supported the anti-evolutionary policies works as an X-ray technician.

After the school board presented a guest "expert" promoting "intelligent design" and showed the full 51 minutes of the Icons of Evolution video to a public meeting, we were outraged. The board wants the Icons video shown in biology classes.

We joined with other parents and concerned citizens and demanded equal time — a presentation by scientists and/or science educators to refute the misinformation presented at the board meetings, but the board refused to let us bring a speaker to present the opposing view. In response, we formed a group called Citizens for Quality Education and rented the school auditorium for a forum on evolution. Blaise served as a panelist during the second hour of the program, discussing the medical applications and benefits of evolution.

The reception has not been positive everywhere in the community. We have been talking to whatever town leaders will listen to us. Blaise invited Leona Balek (president of the Wisconsin Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State) to speak to the Grantsburg Rotary Club, but Rotary leaders refused to let her speak because they thought the talk would be too controversial. In this small town, as in Darby, Montana (see "Shall we let our children think?" by Victoria Clark in RNCSE 2004 Mar/Apr; 24 [2]: 10–1), some longtime relationships ended abruptly, while others sprang up suddenly. We both were pleased by the reactions of many of the 100 or so people who attended the forum. Many people went out of their way to find us and other organizers of the event and thank us for the effort.

We doubt things will change in Grantsburg. As in most small towns, people like us that have lived here for 10–15 years are still considered "outsiders" by many. Those same people never stop to think that none of the "intelligent design" experts that addressed the board — and certainly no one from the Discovery Institute, which provided materials for the school board to use in its anti-evolution policy — could be considered anything other than outsiders. People in Grantsburg, and especially those in our group, have lost friends over this issue and have been accused of being atheists (despite the fact that nearly everyone in the group is an active member in one of the town's churches).

In one sense we were successful. The school board did modify the text of its policy several times, even though the intent remained unchanged. The controversy in Grantsburg also convinced several citizens who support good science education to file for seats on the school board in the spring election. We will continue the educational activism in support of evolution in the science curriculum, and this spring we will join it with political activism. We must have a voice for science education on the school board to resist the domination by the most conservative Christians in the community.

By Suzanne and Blaise Vitale
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