08 December 2002
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A battle over whether religious ideas should be part of science classes is brewing in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. This fall, the school board in Cobb County decided that in addition to the Darwinian theory that humans evolved from less complex life forms, science teachers could discuss disputed views, such as the creation of people by a higher power. The school board says the policy does not open the door for religious instruction in the public schools and it does not restrict the teaching of evolution. But some teachers fear that science will suffer under the policy.
It was the Darwinian theory of evolution that led Rex Lybrant to become a high School science teacher. But when he started his job at Harrison High School in Cobb County a few years ago, he was warned not to teach evolution. "I was told don't go there with a 10 foot pole," he says. "I was told by my Department Chair. They said that parents would get enraged, they would get upset."
Mr. Lybrant ignored the warning and says he has taught evolution without any interference from parents. But this summer the school board, which sets education policy in the County, ordered that stickers be placed on all science books, warning students that Evolution is a theory and not a fact.
But North Cobb High School biology teacher Michael Patell says the school board's warning stickers don't make any sense. "Our school board doesn't know what a theory is in science. Theory in everyday language means 'a guess,' a wild guess maybe. That is not its meaning in science," he says. "In science, it's an explanation of a phenomenon and it's well documented. So when we talk about the theory of evolution, we're talking about the fact that there is an explanation for how evolution occurs."
It was a group of fundamentalist Christian parents who convinced the school board that the stickers were necessary. Ever since 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prayer in public schools violates the Constitutional separation of church and state, school authorities across the country have been reluctant to allow discussion of the Biblical version of creation in science classes.
But that hasn't stopped groups like the one in Cobb county from trying to find ways to get religious ideas into classrooms. In September, at a standing-room-only public meeting, these parents were successful in convincing the school board to adopt a policy that allows disputed views on the origin of life including religious views to be discussed in county schools.
Parent Marjory Rogers says she doesn't believe evolution explains the origin of mankind and was elated about the policy. "I'm excited that so many people had their thinking challenged and I think is has promoted people's not taking something 'cause it's in a science book as fact and looking at it a little more deeply," she says.
In trying to avoid a court challenge, the school board drafted an intentionally vague policy. It spells out that evolution and not the Biblical story of creation is to be taught in Cobb County schools… all the while allowing for open class discussion of other views on the origin of the species.
School Board member Gordon O'Neill says the policy won't allow any form of religious instruction. He says it only fosters free expression. "I think it's the best thing for the class room environment that we encourage critical thinking in the classroom. We open up the full line of debate and that's what I think our classrooms are for," he says.
But teachers like Rex Lybrant worry that the policy will interfere with science instruction. "The way this policy seems to be worded opens a Pandora's Box to creationism being taught in the schools," he says. "And at that point I could no longer teach."
In recent years, fundamentalist Christian groups have begun to focus less on creationism and more on what they're calling "intelligent design." This belief doesn't specifically mention God, but it does insist that some other being, rather than a natural process, created life on earth.
George Stickel, Science Coordinator for Cobb County Schools, says the policy only reflects the county's strong religious values. "We're a very conservative community and we have got lots of diverse worldviews and we want to be indeed sensitive to student concerns," he says.
But that sensitivity could backfire, according to science teacher Wes McCoy. He worries that the policy will hurt the academic reputation of the county's schools, whose students consistently score above average on national tests. "When I first heard about the policy, I was really worried because it sounded like something that would affect the credibility of our graduates," he says. "I was worried that people in other states would be concerned that our students may not have a good science education."
Mr. McCoy and other teachers are now waiting for the school board to issue guidelines on how to implement the policy. They are expected to be released later this month. The American Civil Liberties Union is already challenging the warning stickers in court and is likely to attack the new guidelines as well… no matter what they say.