Lone Star Wars

Texas Faces A Major Battle over Evolution Instruction In The Public Schools

After teaching in Texas public schools for 10 years and serving as a director of science curriculum for the Texas Education Agency for nearly 10 years, Chris Castillo Comer’s career as an educator took a turn she never expected, simply with a click of her computer’s mouse.

She hit “send” on an e-mail announcing a lecture in Austin, Texas, to be given by Barbara Forrest, a professor at Southeastern Louisiana University and co-author of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. Forrest’s 2004 book exposed the theocratic agenda of the Discovery Institute and other creationist organizations.

Comer said she didn’t know of Forrest until she received the e-mail announcement from the National Center for Science Education.

“I did a Google search on Barbara after I received the e-mail and I realized she had incredible credentials,” Comer said. “I thought maybe some people may be interested in the lecture, so I forwarded the e-mail with an FYI subject heading to colleagues living in the Austin area.”

Soon after, Comer was called in by a high-level boss and was told she had to immediately issue a disclaimer that stated her forwarded e-mail did not reflect the opinion of anyone from the Texas Education Agency, the administrative arm of the Texas State Board of Education. Comer was then asked to resign or she would be fired.

“When I sent the disclaimer e-mail, I was thinking, ‘why wouldn’t this be the opinion of the agency? The lecture is about evolution, and evolution is part of our standards,’” Comer said. “I now realize how naïve I was.

“I thought it was my job to advise on science, but I realized now my curriculum position was being marginalized by those in power,” she said.

Comer’s name has now become associated with what can happen if teachers don’t follow what the school board – and the Religious Right – has in mind for the state of Texas.

“I think a tone has been set,” Comer said. “Science educators are very worried, and many of my friends told me they have been called into meetings and told, ‘Remember what happened to Chris Comer? Do not do any workshops on evolution or answer any questions on evolution.’”

Comer’s story paints a picture of the climate permeating Texas – a mood that has always lingered in the state but has escalated in the past eight years since Gov. Rick Perry entered office, Comer said. Perry has been a long-time friend of the Religious Right, and during his re-election in 2006, right-wing activists put forth the Texas Restoration Project to register and mobilize “values voters” to ensure Perry’s re-election.

“I always thought those in charge thought of doing things that were best for the children,” Comer said. “I realize now that they base it all on politics.”

And the Texas public school system is the current battleground for the fundamentalist Christians seeking control of the state’s public school system. They are trying to ward off scientists and continue to advance “intelligent design,” the latest variant of creationism. Scientists and civil liberties activists, including Americans United for Separation of Church and State, are doing all they can to put up a fight.

In the upcoming months, the Texas State Board of Education will vote on whether the science curriculum, which is reviewed and updated every 10 years, should continue to require students to learn the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution in science classes.

To scientists, there are no weaknesses to evolution, and this terminology is merely code language to push non-scientific, religious viewpoints in public schools.

More than 800 Texas scientists have joined the 21st Century Science Coalition, a group organized to defend sound science education. Coalition leaders brought scientific journals with them to testify at the Texas Education Agency in October as proof that “weaknesses” in evolution don’t exist.

“Not a single one [of the articles in these journals] gives us reason to believe evolution did not occur,” Dan Bolnick, an assistant professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas told the Austin American- Statesman. “So where are the weaknesses? Simple: They don’t exist. They are not based on scientific research or data and have been refuted countless times.”

Americans United has drafted a letter to Board Chairman Don McLeroy and Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott, both appointed by Perry, urging them to respect sound science standards and not interject religion into Texas’ public schools.

“Public schools should educate, not indoctrinate,” said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. “The board should not risk the sound scientific education of Texas’s children or costly litigation that could result from adopting any standards that would include creationism or intelligent design.”

Americans United is working alongside the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), a Texas-based watchdog group that monitors the Religious Right, to oppose science standards intended to advance religious dogma.

The groups have alerted teachers, scientists, professors, clergy and any other Texans who might want to testify at the board’s November and January hearings. TFN lined up 120 Texans to testify to their support for sound science standards at the November meeting.

Among those is the Rev. Dr. Charles Kutz-Marks, senior pastor of University Christian Church in Austin, who thinks religion should not be brought into science class.

“It is a misuse of religion, whether we are talking about Christianity or any other, to replace science in the operation of the world,” Kutz-Marks said. “These politicians are very clearly working off a religious agenda to get creationism into our schools. And I think we are doing our children a great disservice if we don’t teach them what a huge majority of scientists believe.

“I’m hopeful they will recognize in order to the serve the interests of our children,” he continued, “we should be teaching them what the rest of the civilized world believes in.”

Kutz-Marks is among many clergy in Texas who support teaching evolution in the science curriculum. The Texas Faith Network, a coalition of mainstream religious leaders from around the state, is working to correct the misconception that those who support evolution are anti-God.

In February, the coalition partnered with the Clergy Letter Project to promote Evolution Weekend, where clergy in all 50 states and nine countries delivered sermons, led discussions and hosted speakers, encouraging their congregations to recognize the distinctions between faith and science.

But despite this support for evolution, battling the right-wing faction of the Texas State Board of Education is not an easy task. The board is stacked with conservatives eager to carry out the agenda of their Religious Right constituency.

And the outcome won’t be confined within the border of the Lone Star State. Texas is the second-largest purchaser of textbooks, after California, meaning publishers create books based on the needs of Texas schools. The curriculum decision in Texas will filter through to textbooks in other states.

At the helm of the 15-member board is McLeroy, a Bryan-College Station dentist who has made it clear he does not believe in evolution.

“I look at evolution as still a hypothesis with weaknesses,” he told the Associated Press in early October.

McLeroy, an evangelical Christian, told the San Antonio Express-News in May that “evolution is not fact. Evolution is a theory and, as such, cannot be proven.”

But McLeroy refutes the idea that his support of the “strengths and weaknesses” language is simply a way to force creationism on public school children.

“I’m getting sick and tired of people saying we’re interjecting religion,” McLeroy told the Associated Press. “We’re certainly not interjecting religion. Not at all.”

Texas scientists, teachers and civil rights activists don’t buy into McLeroy’s defense. According to reports by TFN and Texas Citizens for Science, the board’s composition (seven of the 15 elected members are reportedly aligned with the creationists), along with its secretive activities, call McLeroy’s and his allies’ agenda into question.

The board’s Religious Right mindset is apparent. Four members, Terri Leo, Cynthia Dunbar, Barbara Cargill and Gail Lowe, recently advocated for schools to use the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools’ discredited and unconstitutional proselytizing materials.

Dunbar, a law graduate of TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Regent University, recently posted a column on the Christian Worldview Network Web site attacking President-elect Barack Obama and predicting that with Obama as president, there will be a terrorist attack on America “by those with whom Obama truly sympathizes to take down the America that is a threat to tyranny.” She continued by saying Obama will use that attack to declare martial law and expand his powers.

The author of a new book One Nation Under God, Dunbar says on her Web site, “Many, if not most, Americans fail to realize the socialistic, and even communistic world views they possess, because these views have become so inculcated into every area of our society, we no longer recognize them.”

Despite the controversial views of some of its members, the board nominated a working group of teachers and scientists to draft a new science curriculum. An unofficial draft of these rules was reviewed by TFN activists, who were pleasantly surprised to find the controversial “strengths and weaknesses” language removed. TFN commended the working group in September for crafting “solid standards.”

“These common-sense standards respect the right of families to pass on their own religious beliefs to their children while ensuring that public schools give students a sound science education that prepares them to succeed in college and the jobs of the future,” said Kathy Miller, TFN president.

The board then made an announcement, however, that it would appoint a panel of “experts” to review the proposed curriculum and provide recommendations. Board members nominated three creationists to the six-member panel, and two of those creationists were not even from Texas.

TFN reported that several respected scientists had contacted state board members to serve on the review panel, but did not receive nominations.

“Texas universities boast some of the leading scientists in the world,” said Miller. “It’s appalling that some state board members turned to out-of-state ideologues to decide whether Texas kids get a 21st-century science education.”

These “out-of state ideologues” include Stephen Meyer, vice president of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that actively promotes intelligent-design creationism. The other nominees were Ralph Seelke, co-author with Meyer of the anti-evolution textbook Explore Evolution, and Charles Garner, a professor in Baylor University’s chemistry department with creationist sympathies.

According to a report by Steven Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science, neither Meyer nor Seelke have the scientific qualifications to sit on the panel and Garner is “marginally qualified.”

“Meyer is not a professional scientist, but a polemicist and pseudoscientific activist who specializes in writing persuasive essays that promote IDC [intelligent-design creationism] for Discovery Institute marketing campaigns,” Schafersman wrote. The Discovery Institute has a variety of tactics to push “intelligent design” concepts into public schools, but a federal court in Pennsylvania struck down promotion of religion in science classes in its Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School ruling.

While Seelke is a professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, his official university Web site offers a disclaimer. “The contents of these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of UW-Superior and are not officially endorsed by the university,” it says. His posted writings question evolution and promote “intelligent design.”

The “expert” panel provided its recommendations to the board in early November, with the anti-evolution members advocating for the “strengths and weaknesses” language while the panel’s other members recommended the draft proposals stay as they are, with “strengths and weaknesses” removed.

More recently, a new — but no less insidious — term, “strength and limitations,” suddenly appeared in the draft curriculum. Sources say a creationist member of the working group managed to get the words included, and as Church & State went to press, a wrangle over the move was under way.

The proposed rules are available for public comment, and several Americans United members in Texas are expressing their wishes for how the board should vote.

“Religion is being used here as a tool of control instead of for personal development,” said Eric Lane, president of the San Antonio AU Chapter. “People in the Religious Right want to shut down critical thinking; it’s extremely selfish.

“Texas is moving backwards,” he continued, “and people want to take us backwards because of fear.”

Despite the pleas from clergy, educators, scientists and civil liberties activists in Texas, Comer knows the reality of what they are up against.

“I’ve sat down with a lot of reporters to do interviews, and they always are telling me the majority of Texans don’t believe in evolution so why should it be taught in public schools,” she said. “These are educated people with college degrees saying things like this.”

The anti-evolution movement has a long history in Texas. In the mid-1990s, former Gov. George W. Bush signed Texas Proclamation 95, requiring basic biology textbooks to “formulate, discuss, critique, and review hypotheses, theories, laws, and principles, and their strengths and weaknesses.”

Following Bush’s lead, Religious Right activists began to turn the State Board of Education into a battleground, according to a report by Texas Weekly. Voters began to elect “a board with a bloc of ideologues who care more about promoting their own personal agendas than educating Texas kids,” Dan Quinn, communications director for TFN, told Texas Weekly.

In 1997, the word “evolution” was added to Texas biology standards for the first time, according to a Texas Citizens for Science report. Many of the Texas Education Agency administrators didn’t want to do it, fearing objections from the state board.

As a compromise, the board added a Biology Textbook Proclamation that stated evolutionary explanations in biology texts would be required to include “weaknesses.” It then expanded this rule across every scientific discipline in the curriculum.

In addition to the “strengths and weaknesses” language, according to Schafersman, the current science curriculum refers to evolution as merely a “theory,” while other science concepts such as cell biology, genetics, taxonomy, molecular biology or ecology are not referred to as “theories.” Schafersman also finds fault that Texas does not require high school biology classes to teach human evolution.

“I just don’t get it,” Comer said. “How did we get to this point?”

Since her forced resignation, Comer has been following the Religious Right and educating herself about what she and other sound-science advocates in Texas are up against. She won’t be testifying at the state board hearings, because she has a lawsuit pending against the state over her ouster.

“They feel if they don’t believe what the Bible says, they aren’t going to heaven,” she said. “We may lose this one, because though they may be a small faction, they seem to be ruling the Republican Party and are making decisions that most intelligent people reject. It just puts Texas up for ridicule.”