Residents Rally To Defend Science Classes In Montana Town

Alarmed residents of Darby, Mont., have formed an organization to defend the teaching of evolution in the wake of a school board vote they say will weaken good science instruction.

In late January the Darby School Board voted 3-2 to revise school policies to require teachers to "assess evidence for and against" the theory of evolution. Board Chair Gina Schallenberger said the change was needed because scientists disagree about evolution.

In fact, the board appeared to be acting from community pressure spearheaded by religious groups that oppose evolution. In early December, Curtis Brickley, a local Baptist minister, held a forum at the junior high school that was critical of evolution and touted "objective origins" science. Although Brickley has no scientific training, community residents used his information to demand changes to the schools' science curriculum.

Supporters of evolution quickly rallied and formed their own group, Ravalli County Citizens for Science. The New York Times reported that Darby residents contacted a biotechnology company in nearby Hamilton and spoke with Jay Evans, an immunologist. Evans looked into Brickley's presentation and learned that much of it was based on material produced by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle based neo-creationist organization.

Evans said refuting Brickley's claims "took me one afternoon."

In late February, angry students at Darby High School decided to protest. About 50 amounting to one-third of the entire school population walked out of class to object to the inclusion of creationism in class. Many carried signs supporting the separation of church and state. Some teachers came out to support them.

Education officials in Darby are aware that the policy might lead to a lawsuit. In late February, the board voted to accept free legal help from the Alliance Defense Fund, a Religious Right legal group.

In other news about creationism and evolution:

Alabama legislators are considering a bill that would give university instructors the legal right to introduce creationism in class. The measure, called the "Academic Freedom Act," is pending in both the state House of Representa­tives and Senate.

Alabama already has state legislation that favors creationism. "Disclaimers" designed to instill doubts about evolution are pasted into school science texts.

Georgia Schools Superintendent Kathy Cox is still dealing with fallout from her attempt earlier this year to remove references to evolution from state science standards. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported March 7 that Republican Party leaders, including representatives from Gov. Sonny Pur­due's office, met with Cox and de­mand­ed to know what had happened.

GOP leaders were apparently embarrassed by the flap, which they said put the state in a negative light. Cox sparked controversy in early February when she announced that the standards would not contain references to evolution. She described it "a buzzword that causes a lot of negative reaction" and added people might think Georgia school were teaching "the monkeys-to-man sort of thing."

Cox quickly backed down after a spate of negative media coverage, some of it lampooning in style. Stories about the flap were carried in newspapers all over the country and were spread around the world via the World Wide Web.

The GOP leaders made it clear they don't want any more surprises.

"We didn't want to throw her under the bus without understanding the process," said Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson. "Is there anything else out there coming down the track?"