Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Washington School District Wrestles with Creationism, "Intelligent Design Theory"

Washington School District Wrestles with Creationism, "Intelligent Design Theory"
Reviewed by
Eugenie C. Scott

From February through April, 1996, the small town of Sultan, WA, was the site of now-familiar rancorous school board meetings over the question of whether creationism should be taught with evolution. Teacher Meg Town had attended a workshop on creation and evolution at a National Science Teachers Association regional meeting (taught by NCSE board member Dr. Duane Jeffery), so she knew where to go for help when the school board was approached with the request that it introduce creation "science" and Intelligent Design Theory into the curriculum.

In February, Meg's science curriculum committee was being pressed to include creation science in the curriculum under preparation. The Superintendent strongly favored a public forum, which the committee preferred to avoid because of its potential to stir up controversy. As an alternative, the committee agreed to sit through a presentation on creation science from two community members. Without the knowledge of the committee, a board member on the committee invited the full board to attend the presentation. Because all meetings of the board must be public, this presentation constituted an illegal meeting, causing an uproar.

During the actual presentation, the presenters made the usual creationist claims, and proposed the textbook Of Pandas and People as a good source for information on creation science. In March, the committee of teachers and community members declined to include creationism in the curriculum they submitted to the board. The board, however, did not initially accept the science committee's curriculum and subsequently scheduled public hearing on the merits of teaching "alternatives to evolution" that teachers had sought to avoid.

Meg and her husband Mike gathered a committee of concerned citizens to protest the introduction of nonscience topics into the science class, and to support the teaching of evolution. At the April 10 school board meeting, 250 people (about 10% of the Sultan population!) filled the meeting room to overflowing, eager to argue the issue. According to the Towns, the crowd's opinions about creationism in the science curriculum were divided 50:50 — a terrific turnout for the pro-evolution side, which is ordinarily outnumbered in such meetings (see related stories about Ohio hearings, pp. 6, 18). Even so, the board seemed reluctant to adopt the curriculum without creation science added.

On April 15, in a meeting to adopt or reject the science curriculum, the board declined to include creationism, largely for fear of a lawsuit. The ACLU had written a letter to the Sultan Superintendent of Schools, outlining the Constitutional issues involved in teaching creationism. However, modifications were made to the science curriculum, with allegedly "political" statements taken out, i.e., a statement from the National Science Teachers Association (reprinted in NCSE's Voices for Evolution) that teachers should only teach concepts and subjects that fit stated criteria of science. As things now stand, creationism will not be required in Sultan, WA schools. Community members feel that the story is not over, however, and that the board might revisit the issue in the future. As is always the case when creationism and evolution clash at the local level, some teachers become intimidated and will cease to teach evolution.

Thanks to Meg and Mike Town and their fellow citizens for upholding the integrity of science, and also to University of Washington scientists (and NCSE members) Gordon Orians and George Gilchrist for their testimony at the public hearing.

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