Reports of the National Center for Science Education

A New Tactic for Getting "Creation Science" Into Classrooms?

One of the enduring characteristics of evolution/creation controversies in this country is that anti-evolution tactics change over time, although the underlying message does not. One reason these changes occur is that anti-evolutionists respond to court rulings by looking for specific language in these decisions which may seem to provide a "loophole" that can be used as another route for bringing "creation science" into the schools. For example, Eugenie Scott has described the "mutation" of proposals for "balanced treatment" of evolution and "creation science" into proposals for teaching "evidence against evolution" (NCSE Reports 1996; 16[2]:5). The name may change, but the content stays the same; the "evidence" offered "against evolution" consists of the same "unsolved problems" decried by "creation science".

The most publicized efforts to have "evidence against evolution" taught are legislative proposals like the bill introduced in Ohio in 1995 (NCSE Reports 16[3]:18). But there's another way of bringing anti-evolution into classrooms that may be more successful because it is less publicized, and often goes unnoticed; this is for teachers to present it on their own initiative. In some instances, teachers have the support of their communities. In other cases a teacher may continue for years before parents or administrators learn what is happening. It doesn't always occur to students to mention what they were taught, and even the most attentive parents may not happen to see one or a few homework assignments covering the material, or recognize them as such.

Two of the more recent strategies are to argue that individual teachers have a constitutional right to present creationist material and that "evidence against evolution" should be taught in the science classroom as a way to improve teaching and learning. The former insists either that free speech or the free exercise of religion is unconstitutionally abridged when teachers are not permitted to teach creationism in the science classroom. The second usually resorts to a litany of so-called "problems" and "anomalies" in the scientific evidence which proponents claim casts doubt on evolutionary explanations and models.

The "Right" to Teach "Creation Science" - Two Failed Legal Strategies

When they hear that their teachers are teaching "creation science" in the science classroom, school district administrators or board members who understand the scientific issues - or at least the legal repercussions - will often tell them to stop, and sometimes that's the end of the story (for example, in Lakewood, OH, as described in NCSE Reports 1996; 16[1]:6). But 2 instances in which teachers responded by suing their school districts have led to major legal decisions, each upholding the district's actions:

  • In 1990, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided the case of a teacher who claimed that a school district had violated his free speech rights by forbidding him to teach "creation science". The Appeals Court upheld a lower court's ruling that the teacher's claim was outweighed by a public school's obligation to ensure that religious views are not injected into curricula (Webster v New Lenox School District #122, 917 F. 2d 1004).

  • In 1994 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's ruling that a teacher's right of free exercise of religion is not violated by a requirement to teach evolution. The decision issued by the Court specifically rejected the claim that evolution is a "religion" (John E Peloza v Capistrano Unified School District, [1994] 917 F. 2d 1004). The Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the Peloza decision.

While circuit court decisions do not apply to every state in the US, they do apply within their districts and may be consulted by other circuit courts considering similar cases. Ninth Circuit decisions apply to Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Nevada, and Arizona; Seventh Circuit decisions apply to Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana.

A New Approach - Teaching "Evidence Against Evolution"

In recent months, NCSE has been consulted by residents of 2 districts in which teachers are claiming they have a right to present "evidence against evolution". In Faribault, Minnesota, after a series of discussions with school and district officials, high-school teacher Rodney LeVake was re-assigned from teaching a biology class to a general science class. A complaint to the State of Minnesota's Third Judicial District Court, filed on Levake's behalf by the Midwest office of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), alleges that the school district's action has violated a number of LeVake's rights under both state and federal constitutions, including a right to protection from "discriminat[ion] terms, conditions and privileges of employment on the basis of his religion...." (ACLJ is a conservative Christian legal organization launched by Pat Robertson, founder of the "Christian Coalition".)

The ACLJ complaint quotes LeVake's statement, in a "position paper" requested by school administrators, that, "I will teach, should the department decide that it is appropriate, the theory of evolution. I will also accompany that treatment of evolution with an honest look at the difficulties and inconsistencies of the theory without turning my class into a religious one." (Minnesota's Science Curriculum Framework specifies that "biological evolution" should be taught in grades 9-12.)

The full text of the "position statement " attached to the complaint contains a litany of familiar "creation science" and "intelligent design" arguments, for example:
  • "neither evolution nor creation can be considered a science..."
  • "amazing lack of transitional forms in the fossil record..."
  • "mutations generally have a negative impact..."
  • "evolution is in clear violation of [the Second Law of Thermodynamics]..."
  • "no reservations [about "microevolution", but] ... recent literature doesn't support...macroevolution..."

LeVake's statement also refers to "irreducible complexity", a concept introduced in Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box, and even lists Behe's example of the structure of flagellae, while stating that LeVake has not read this book (but recommends it anyway!)

Many of LeVake's arguments are familiar, and his legal complaint repeats some claims that have been made in other cases - such as a right to teach anti-evolution as a matter of "academic freedom". However, this appears to be the first time that supposed employment discrimination against a teacher has been alleged against a district that would not permit teaching "evidence against evolution".

Of Pandas and Lawsuits

In Burlington, Washington there has been controversy for over a year concerning Roger DeHart's use of the "intelligent design" textbook Of Pandas and People in a middle-school science class. In 1998, school board members who had supported DeHart said they did not want to risk being sued by the ACLU. A new superintendent ordered DeHart to stop using Pandas and explicitly said he could not teach "creation science." (RNCSE 1999; 19[1]:7).

In the summer of 1999, DeHart sought approval of some portions of Pandas by the district's Instructional Materials Committee (IMC). Local newspapers suggested that attorneys had contacted the school district on DeHart's behalf (Burlington Argus, March 3, 1999:1). Although the IMC committee refused to approve the material, the school's principal gave DeHart permission to use a few pages from Pandas. According to an article in the Seattle Times, the principal said, "He's introducing 'irreducible complexity'.... He also has to have a supporting theory of how evolution addressed complex things...." (June 14, 1999 ). It is clear that District officials believe they have made a compromise. On July 14, the Skagit Valley Herald reported that Superintendent Rick Jones commented, "When I came to this district he was teaching a great deal about intelligent design and now there is nothing being taught. We've made radical changes... but no one seems to be thinking about that."

At the time of publication, no court documents have been filed by either the school district or DeHart's attorneys, so NCSE does not know whether new legal strategies will be attempted. Some correspondence on DeHart's behalf by an attorney for the Rutherford Institute implies that refusing to use Pandas would somehow be unconstitutional. While the concept of "intelligent design theory" has appeared in a federal court (in the Freiler v Tangipahoa case, see RNCSE 1997; 17[3]:5-7), the situation in Burlington may evolve into the first lawsuit in which the constitutionality of using Pandas is an issue.

Coming to a Classroom Near You?

Resources for teachers who want to teach "evidence against evolution" are abundantly available from both "creation science ministries" and conservative religious groups for whom "creation science" is just one concern. For example, a booklet distributed to teachers by Focus on the Family lists 8 organizations with resources for teachers (and here at NCSE we know of many more!). A 1998 International Creation Conference included 11 sessions for teachers, with titles like "Complexity of Blood Clotting: A Laboratory Practicum" and "Funny Bones - Using Humor to Teach Creation in Human Anatomy Courses". Audiotapes of each session are available (see a complete list at ). The abundance of resources suggests a wide audience, and numerous surveys finding that many teachers want to teach "creation science" confirm this impression (more than 30% of a national sample of high school biology teachers described in Eve and Dunn, 1989).

What can you do? If you have children in school, you can tell if evolution is being taught (and how well) when helping with science homework or visiting the science classroom on parents' night. You can read your child's textbooks and supplemental materials and check out the school library - books, magazines and other materials such as audiotapes, videotapes, posters, and so on. If you don't have children in school, but know people who do, share your interest in NCSE and good science education. Don't be surprised if some day one of these friends calls and asks, "My child's teacher is talking about 'evidence against evolution'. What can I do?" This has happened to other NCSE members (see NCSE Reports 1996; 16[1]:21-2). And then? Call NCSE - we're here to help.

By Molleen Matsumura, NCSE Network Project Director
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.