Jeffrey Selman never intended to be such a public proponent of the separation of church and state, even though he has always considered himself an advocate for that long-cherished American principle.
But when the suburban Atlanta computer programmer learned that his son’s public school district planned to place stickers questioning evolution in science textbooks, his circumstances were swiftly altered.
The Cobb County school system is the second largest public school district in Georgia, but in 2002, the board of education surrendered to a religious pressure campaign and announced its plan to warn students that evolution is “a theory, not a fact” and that it should be “critically considered.”
Up until that point, Selman told Church & State, it had felt as if he had been “sleepwalking through a democracy.” He had assumed that it was “a done deal” that religion could not be taught in the science curriculum and that public schools could not take actions to undermine the teaching of evolution for religious reasons.
After reading about the school board’s move in a local newspaper, Selman placed a call to the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. He also made appearances before the school board, urging its members to reverse their decision.
Selman said his pleas to the board were shunned, and it soon became apparent that litigation was the only alternative. When the Georgia ACLU called to ask if he was interested in being a plaintiff, he readily agreed.
“I said, yeah, go for it,” recalled Selman. Other Cobb County parents later joined the Selman v. Cobb County School Board lawsuit.
Selman’s very public foray into activism on behalf of church-state separation – the case drew national and international media attention – ended with a victory last December, when Cobb County school officials entered a broad-based agreement promising to abide by constitutional mandates.
The Dec. 19 settlement states that Cobb County school officials are barred “from restoring to the science textbooks of students in the Cobb County schools any stickers, labels, stamps, inscriptions, or other warnings or disclaimers bearing language substantially similar to that used on the sticker that is the subject of this action.” Moreover, it prohibits school officials from taking any other actions that would “prevent or hinder the teaching of evolution in the School District.”
Selman, who during the course of litigation also was elected president of the Georgia chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, lauded the school board.
“The settlement brings to an end a long battle to keep our science classes free of political or religious agendas,” he said. “I am very pleased that the Cobb school board has dropped its defense of the anti-evolution policy.”
The settlement, which was brought about with substantial legal help from Americans United, is another big setback for Religious Right activists who are waging war on public schools. They have long sought to force the teaching of creationism or its latest variant, “intelligent design,” in science classes.
The federal courts have repeatedly rejected that crusade, ruling that the teaching of religion in public schools is unconstitutional. In the most recent ruling in December 2005, a federal judge invalidated the Dover, Pa., school district’s attempt to teach intelligent design.
To circumvent the courts, some Religious Right forces are trying a new maneuver, urging public schools to question the validity of evolution without publicly putting forward a religious alternative to the scientific concept.
The Discovery Institute, one of the nation’s leading proponents of intelligent design, weighed in heavily on the side of the Georgia anti-evolution stickers, saying that a final decision in the case would “be at least as important, if not more important, than the Dover school district case last year.”
Casey Luskin, a Discovery Institute attorney, said in a May 25, 2006, statement that he hoped the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would rule that the disclaimers are constitutional and create precedent for the states covered by the 11th Circuit – Georgia, Alabama and Florida.
“Eventually it’s likely that a decision will be handed down from this federal appellate court governing legal decisions in multiple states,” Luskin said.
The Cobb County sticker was a perfect example of the Discovery Institute’s latest gambit. It read: “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origins of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.”
The Cobb County school officials’ decision to settle the case squelched the hopes of Religious Right activists and rendered the Discovery Institute speechless. Although the group’s Web site includes several press releases about the four-year Georgia battle, it has yet to issue a statement about the controversy’s abrupt conclusion.
Although the Discovery Institute tried to pretend that its interests were purely scientific, the push for the evolution disclaimer was clearly religious in character. Marjorie Rogers, a Cobb County parent with a staunch literal belief in the Bible’s creation story, led the crusade. With the help of her friends and her church, she launched a petition drive urging the school board to adopt the anti-evolution stickers.
Rogers, according to court documentation, was incensed that textbooks only covered evolution, and she repeatedly condemned the books for not examining creationism.
In a 2005 interview with The Washington Post, Rogers said evolution, which the vast majority of the world’s scientists describe as the cornerstone of biology, offends her and is actually a religion. She complained that evolution belittles humans.
After Rogers triumphed and the stickers were placed in the Cobb County science textbooks in 2002, Selman and other parents sued, charging that the board was promoting religion in violation of the First Amendment.
U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper concurred, concluding in 2005 that the stickers have “already sent a message that the school board agrees with the beliefs of Christian fundamentalists and creationists.” He held that the disclaimer “misleads students regarding the significance and value of evolution in the scientific community for the benefit of religious alternatives.”
Cooper’s ruling was in line with federal court precedent, including decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1968, the Supreme Court invalidated an Arkansas statute that prohibited public schools from teaching evolution. In Epperson v. Arkansas, the justices found that lawmakers created the state law with the sole motivation of appeasing the “fundamentalist sectarian conviction” of a lot of their constituents.
Following Epperson, creationist groups tried a different tactic. The Louisiana legislature passed a so-called “balanced treatment” law that required the public schools to teach “creation science” whenever they taught evolution. In 1987, the Supreme Court struck down the measure. In Edwards v. Aguillard, the justices concluded that the lawmakers did not have a secular purpose.
The high court also held that the Louisiana law “advances a religious doctrine by requiring either the banishment of the theory of evolution from public school classrooms or the presentation of a religious viewpoint that rejects evolution in its entirety.”
After Judge Cooper’s ruling, the Cobb County school district paid students and teachers $10 an hour to scrape the stickers from textbooks. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, $14,243 was spent on the project. The school board, however, also continued to defend the stickers and filed an appeal.
Last spring, a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit refused to rule on the constitutionality of the disclaimers and sent the case back to Cooper for further consideration. The panel complained that documentation was insufficient for it to decide whether to reverse or sustain Cooper’s decision.
Following the 11th Circuit action, the ACLU of Georgia reached out to Americans United for help with the legal battle. Americans United, along with the Pennsylvania ACLU and the Philadelphia law firm of Pepper Hamilton, had represented Dover, Pa., parents in their successful legal challenge to intelligent design.
Americans United, Pepper Hamilton and an Atlanta law firm, Bondurant, Mixon & Elmore, quickly swung into action in the Georgia battle.
Before the case could go back into the courtroom, however, the Cobb County board of education decided to enter the settlement and end the lawsuit.
Friends of the First Amendment were pleased.
“Students should be taught sound science, and the curriculum should not be altered at the behest of aggressive religious groups,” said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. “Cobb County school officials have taken the right step to ensure that their students receive a quality education.”
It appears that changes in the make-up of the school board and weariness over the controversy played into the decision to reach an agreement. According to press accounts, Cobb County board members had decided that they no longer wanted to spend public funds on the fight and endure the glare of media attention.
The new chairwoman of the Cobb County education board said members decided to settle the controversy to avoid a prolonged legal battle.
“We faced the distraction and expense of starting all over with more legal actions and another trial,” board chairwoman Teresa Plenge told the Associated Press. “With this agreement, it is done and we now have a clean slate for the new year.”
Some commentators found the attention damaging to the north metro Atlanta district that serves a diverse population of more than 106,000 students.
Maureen Downey, an editorial board writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wrote that the controversy was expensive and that “it was also embarrassing, turning the prestigious school system into a punch line.”
In a Dec. 20 article, the newspaper noted that the disclaimers were “the subject of jokes on blogs and e-mails, including one that linked to a Web site offering alternative stickers. One read: ‘This textbook contains material on gravity. Gravity is a theory, not a fact, regarding a force that cannot be seen….’”
Moreover, as the newspaper reported, the Cobb County board of education had undergone some unusual turnover. The board had rarely seen change, but the 2006 elections saw the departure of three board members who were proponents of the disclaimers. They were replaced by individuals who publicly campaigned on ending the legal fight.
Indeed, one of the new board members, John Crooks, a Baptist minister, lauded the settlement, telling the press, “Moving on to more important educational matters is essential.”
Kathie Johnstone, the board’s chairwoman during the adoption of the stickers, didn’t even make it to the general election. She lost overwhelmingly to a Republican challenger in the summer GOP primary.
Cobb school officials and attorneys also may have realized that they faced an increasingly daunting challenge.
Richard Katskee, Americans United’s assistant legal director and its primary attorney in the Dover, Pa., case, had quickly started rounding up some of the same expert witnesses from the Dover case to help in the Cobb County dispute. These included Kenneth Miller, a biology professor at Brown University, Brian Alters, a professor of science education at McGill University, and Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education.
Americans United’s Katskee was pleased with the settlement and said the school district would now be in the position to “focus squarely on providing a sound education to Cobb County students.”
Mike King, a member of the editorial board for The Journal-Constitution, wrote in a Dec. 21 column that the Cobb school board had finally come to its senses.
“Truth is,” King wrote, “there never has been widespread support within the county to change the way human biology should be taught. It has always been the work of a handful of anti-evolution zealots who would be better off home-schooling their children.”
Two of the parents who pushed the Cobb board to adopt the stickers lashed out at the settlement.
Rogers told the Journal-Constitution that she was disappointed and that without the evolution disclaimer stickers, “the textbooks are inaccurate and biased and unconstitutional.”
Larry Taylor, who has three children in the Cobb schools, said “terrorist organizations like the ACLU” are “hijacking our country’s educational system by imposing their own secular agenda on the rest of us.”
Religious Right leaders also are bitter.
On his Dec. 21 “700 Club,” television preacher Pat Robertson launched into a tirade.
“Evolution is a theory – not a fact,” Robertson claimed. “Who knows what happened 500 million or a billion years ago? Who knows? Who can say for certain?
“You know none of us were there,” he continued. “These are all speculations and they’re based on incomplete science. So to say it is a fact is bad science. [Cobb County school officials] should have fought. We would have fought beside them. I think it’s time the good people stand up and fight for what they believe in.
“And this business of evolution is based essentially on atheism – that there was no God and that higher life emerged from primordial ooze…that paramecium and protozoa are our ancestors. That’s nonsense. Why should schools say, well, we will never question that? Of course, they should question that.”
Selman, however, scoffed at the notion that the legal action against the evolution disclaimers was any kind of plot to force religious believers to abandon their faith. Indeed, he noted that his understanding of evolution has not caused him to renounce his Jewish faith.
“Simply learning about evolution does not mean that you have to give up your religious beliefs,” he said.
Selman added that he always hoped to avoid litigation. He urged the Cobb board of education on a number of occasions to reverse its decision on the stickers.
“I was just trying to do what is right,” he said, “and the board’s refusal to abandon the sticker left us no recourse.”