No Dominion for Creationism, Part 2

In part 1, I began with Virginia’s House Bill 207. The first antievolution bill in the country for 2014, it also seems to be the first antievolution bill in the Old Dominion ever. There are reports, in books by George E. Webb, Norman Furniss, and Howard K. Beale, ultimately relying on documents in the ACLU’s archives, of a mysterious antievolution bill considered but withdrawn in Virginia in 1926. But contemporary reports from Maynard Shipley (the Scopes-era founder of the original Science League of America), Virginius Dabney, and the state librarian of Virginia seem to indicate rather that the bill was contemplated, by a Methodist minister (whom I have not yet been able to identify: if you know who it was, please get in touch) serving in the General Assembly, but never formally introduced in the legislature.

Despite the absence of antievolution bills before 2014, Virginia’s public education system isn’t immune to creationism, at either the local or the state level. The most important state-level controversy over evolution, I think, was probably the fight over Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the early 1980s. Founded as Lynchburg Baptist College in 1971, renamed Liberty Baptist College in 1976, it became a university, taking the name Liberty University, in 1985. Falwell’s stance on evolution was clear: in 1981, he told Penthouse that “there is not one shred of scientific evidence to support [evolution],” and told a Raleigh, North Carolina, audience that “I want to see creation taught alongside evolution in the public schools,” as Christopher P. Toumey’s God's Own Scientists (1994) relates. He was also clear with the faculty at Liberty, telling them: “I want you to have all the academic freedom you want, as long as you wind up saying the Bible account [of creation] is true and all others are not.”

The problem was that as Liberty upgraded, it was in a position to affect public education in Virginia. Its graduates would, it hoped, be credentialed to teach in Virginia’s public schools. Falwell proclaimed, “[W]e, with God’s help, want to see hundreds of our graduates go out into the classrooms teaching creationism...of course they’ll be teaching evolution. But teaching why it’s invalid and why it’s foolish.” The college's teacher education programs were provisionally certified by the Virginia state board of education in late 1982, over the objections of its advisory council, in part because Liberty promised to purge its biology curriculum of creationism. Still alarmed by the prospect of Falwell’s epigones teaching creation science in the public schools, the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union protested the certification on constitutional grounds, and there was a tussle that lasted for the better part of three years.

In 1984, the Virginia state board of education voted to certify Liberty University’s biology teacher education program. The university would no longer be able to teach creationism in the biology department. But Falwell was undeterred: the creationism courses were relocated to a new academic unit, called the Center for Creation Studies. According to Susan Friend Harding’s The Book of Jerry Falwell (2000), it was “a delicate moment for Falwell”: there was a sense that Liberty University capitulated to the forces of the secular world. But Falwell convinced his critics that “he had used the crisis to intensify the teaching of and commitment to creationism at Liberty,” especially because all students would be required to take a course in the new unit. “Creation would be taught to all students as fact, and evolution as an unproven theory ... to all biology students,” enabling the latter to become credentialed as public school biology teachers.

But a legislative action twenty-five years later compensates, perhaps, for the debacle over Liberty University. On February 12, 2009, the Virginia House of Delegates adopted a resolution commemorating the life and work of Charles Darwin on the bicentennial anniversary of his birth, by voice vote, and the Virginia Senate followed suit a week later. The complete text of House Joint Resolution 884 reads:

WHEREAS, Charles Robert Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England, on February 12, 1809, and 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of his birth; and

WHEREAS, Charles Darwin was the English naturalist who realized and demonstrated his theory that all species of life have evolved over time from common ancestors through the process he called natural selection; and

WHEREAS, Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking work, The Origin of Species, was published in 1859, following his extensive observations of plants and animals during a five-year voyage around the world aboard the HMS Beagle; and

WHEREAS, Charles Darwin published The Descent of Man, which applied his theory to human evolution, in 1871; and

WHEREAS, Darwin Day, held across the world on February 12, recognizes the extraordinary life and discoveries of Charles Darwin and celebrates the enormous benefits that scientific knowledge, acquired through human curiosity and ingenuity, has contributed to the advancement of humanity; and

WHEREAS, Darwin Day also celebrates science as an international language accessible to all individuals and societies and provides a global holiday to embrace the study of science and human discovery that transcends nationalities and cultures; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED by the House of Delegates, the Senate concurring, That the General Assembly commemorate the life of Charles Darwin on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth; and, be it

RESOLVED FURTHER, That the Clerk of the House of Delegates prepare copies of this resolution for presentation to the Virginia Academy of Science and the Science Museum of Virginia as an expression, in the spirit of Darwin Day, of the General Assembly’s gratitude to these organizations for their many efforts to advance science and learning in the Commonwealth.

I wonder. Is Richard P. “Dickie” Bell, the sponsor of HB 207 in the Virginia legislature now, who reportedly “is not convinced the theory of evolution has been scientifically upheld,” aware that both houses of the legislature have recently agreed that the theory that “all species of life have evolved over time from common ancestors through...natural selection” has been demonstrated?

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.