Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Shall We Let Our Children Think?

This was the message posted on the marquee at the Lewis and Clark Trading Post for over two weeks as the Darby school board conducted public hearings concerning the adoption of an “objective origins” policy.

The uninitiated might assume that the question was posed as a rallying point for those against the policy, but to illustrate the complexity and divisiveness surrounding this issue, the author of the marquee script proved a most vocal supporter for the policy. To complicate matters further, the author was none other than Larry Rose, our town marshal, a prominent and visible local personage.

What has happened to Darby, Montana, since Curtis Brickley, an ordained minister, gave a polished presentation to a packed gymnasium expounding on the scientific virtues of “intelligent design” and the need for an “objective origins” policy in our schools to combat the “one-sided” teaching of evolutionary theory? What was Brickley’s intent when he equated evolution with atheism to the assembled crowd? Whom was Brickley trying to awaken and alarm with his spurious scientific and religious rhetoric? Why would someone bring a nationally controversial agenda to our small, rural community? Was Brickley acting alone? Or was Darby considered potentially easy prey by someone beyond the local boundaries, someone willing to sponsor, or at least, encourage Brickley’s meeting? If so, how would our town deal with such possible machinations?

For whatever small part that Darby plays in the anti-evolutionists' place to "wedge" "intelligent design" into curriculum, the local impact has been huge. Some of the comments I heard in the in the last month show this:

“I don’t grocery shop in Darby anymore.” “The florist didn’t deliver when she saw my name on the bill.” “My daughter stormed out of the classroom to avoid more trouble.” I even had a friend stop by the house and tell me that a fellow parishioner had asked her why I was leading up the religious education program at our church “if I didn’t believe in God.”

Darby is not a big place. The main north–south thoroughfare for far-western Montana, two-lane US Highway 93, runs straight through town and comprises our commercial district, less than a mile of businesses: several gift/gallery shops, a few restaurants, a few bars, a few auto repair places, a few hair salons, a few realtors, a couple of spots to pump gas, two banks, a grocery store, a gym, a post office, a volunteer fire hall, a community clubhouse, a one-doctor clinic, a one-room public library, 3 modest motels, and, oh yes, 6 churches. There is no strip mall architecture. There are no fast food franchises. Some of the older buildings are fixed up, but not all. Darby has a sleepy, old west look, inviting to some who stop for lunch and a stroll down Main Street. The next town north is Hamilton, nearly 20 miles down river. The next town south is Gibbonsville, Idaho, about 45 miles up river and over the pass. The surrounding communities refer to us as Darbarians. You get the picture.

What has the objective origins debate brought to our town? Externally, a bit of publicity (or perhaps notoriety) as various Montana — and even national — media organizations pick up and run with the story, allowing folks across the country either to applaud us or to laugh at us. Internally, however, the proposed “objective origins” policy has brought Darby nothing but grief and discord. Although events to date (to my knowledge) have been generally civil — no punches thrown, no bodily threats — and while participants in the public meetings have been noted for their composed demeanor, engaging in minimal heckling and hissing, underneath this controlled veneer there is a palpable sense of unease.

A person is known as either “for” or “against”. The fence sitters are now few. The blissfully ignorant can no longer hide. One local summarized with a grimace, “apathy won’t be an issue in the next election.” Everyone has a heightened sense of awareness to the issue. There is an awkwardness when you run into someone and do not yet know where they stand on the policy. Should you say something? Should you engage in idle pleasantries? What are they thinking? Can you escape before questions are asked? As to encounters with people you know to be on the opposing side, there is a strangeness and bristling up the back, sometimes mixed with hostility, sometimes tempered by weariness. Judgments are passed on both sides, even among residents who have been acquainted for years. There is a tendency to avoid public conversation.

Why do feelings run so deep and so strong? Those favoring objective origins in Darby have centered their arguments on two tenets: first, that there exists valid scientific criticism of evolution, and second, that evolution and God are mutually exclusive. The proponents have furthered their cause by claiming that their children have been “persecuted” and “ridiculed” in school for their stance against evolution. One individual testified that evolution was being “shoved down the throats” of the children. (Notably, these accusations remain unsubstantiated and have been fervently denied by all school staff.) The proponents present themselves as defenders of critical thinking, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. They see the schools as preaching a gospel of godlessness. They worry about the government’s proselytizing in our science classes in support of the “Church of Darwin”. Also in this camp are those that reject the current interpretation of the Establishment Clause. Some explicitly testified that they wanted to see “religion put back in the schools.” This group includes a number of home-schooled families whose interest in the debate implies that if things were otherwise they would enroll their children in our public schools, adding to needy school coffers. Perhaps the most unnerving commonality among the proponents of the policy is that they present themselves as the guardians and holders of the moral high ground, making them particularly invulnerable to (and intolerant of) the reasoning and considerations of the opposing side.

The group against the policy has a more diverse and, consequently, less cohesive following. There are the scientists who worry about the quality and veracity of the science curriculum. There are the First Amendment folk who recognize that, in the United States, religion and science instruction are not compatible in the public schools. There are the parents who fear the loss of accreditation and funding as implementation of the policy strays from state teaching standards. There are the property owners who fear lawsuits and subsequent tax hikes as constitutionality is challenged in the legal arena. Others are simply insulted by the religious presumptions of their opponents and assert that “religion should be taught at home.” Finally, there appears to be a growing number that are plainly tired of the whole debacle and just want to table the policy and get on with their lives. This group includes business owners who appreciate that strife is not good for capitalism and that not all publicity is good publicity. Regardless of specific motive, it was rumored that at least 30 families petitioned to remove their children from the Darby public schools if the policy is adopted. This would have been a significant blow to the school’s finances.

Where has all this controversy taken us? Well, after a protracted and heated school trustee election this past spring, the two candidates opposing the “objective origins” policy won handedly. Public awareness of the issues was at an all time high. Voter turnout was record-breaking, with over 50% of the electorate casting ballots. Moreover, the two victorious candidates both won by nearly a 2 to 1 margin. There can be no doubt that the people have spoken. Given such an outcome, many of us thought the tensions of the past six months would quickly and quietly dissipate into the background, with life in Darby returning to its usual pattern of petty ups and downs. Unfortunately, this appears not to be the case. The “objective origins” supporters continue to submit agitating editorials to the local newspaper. They attended the latest school board meeting in force. They seem undaunted and undeterred by the mandate of the voters. For the foreseeable future, those of us against the policy will have to remain vigilant. One victory at the polls does not translate into an end to the hostilities.

Advice to others: pay attention to local trustee elections, follow school board proceedings carefully, be aware of underlying agendas. Save your community from this malignancy.

By Victoria Clark
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.