November 1999 People & Events

Kansas Evolution Battle Spreads 
To Kentucky, New Mexico Schools

Conflict over the teaching of evolution seems to spreading from Kansas to other states, with disputes erupting recently in Kentucky and New Mexico.

Officials in the Kentucky Education Department quietly dropped the word "evolution" from state science standards and replaced it with "change over time," a modification they insisted will not affect science education in the state.

State educators made the alteration at the last minute last month as they were giving the guidelines one final edit for grammar and spelling, reported the Louisville Courier-Journal. Associate Education Commissioner Linda Houghton told the newspaper the excision was made because use of the word evolution ran afoul of state guidelines that require schools to be sensitive when dealing with controversial topics like death, divorce and animal rights.

Deputy Commissioner Gene Wilhoit remarked, "The word is a lightning rod that creates a diversion from what we're teaching, and we did not want to advocate a particular doctrine or a specific view."

The education officials insisted that the change was merely semantic and that evolution would continue to be taught in Kentucky schools. But some science teachers in the state were not so sure. "A lot of teachers are upset about this," said Ken Rosenbaum, director of the Kentucky Science Teachers Association. "They know it was done for political reasons. It's either a scientific theory or it's not. Why don't we just stop calling the sunrise the sunrise?"

Nellie Shelton, a biology teacher at Danville High School, said evolution is not taught in many Kentucky public schools. "A lot of biology teachers don't touch evolution," she said. "It would have been a major step forward to leave it in." The Courier-Journal surveyed biology teachers and textbooks in the state and found that evolution receives scant coverage in many communities.

The Kentucky Science Teachers Association had recommended that the word "evolution" remain in the guidelines and expected it to be in the final product. However, state officials replaced it with the phrase "change over time" in six places.

State Education Commissioner Wilmer Cody said he backed the new language. "I didn't consider it a substantive matter," Cody said. "The teaching of evolution has been in our academic core content, and it still is. Our recommendation to teachers is that they should cover those concepts."

But Russell County middle school science teacher Susan Nichols said the change would have a chilling effect. "The basic philosophy we had was, if you're going to teach about evolution, why can't you use the word?" she said. AI think the state is just trying to tippy-toe around the issue."

In other news about creationism and evolution in public schools:

The New Mexico Board of Education has voted overwhelmingly to keep evolution in its science standards. The board voted 14-1 Oct. 8 to limit the statewide science curriculum to evolution. Previous policy had required science teachers to give equal weight to "alternative theories," which some board members charged opened the door to creationism.

"This gives teachers the political cover they need to teach evolution," said Marshall Berman, the board member who led the campaign for the change.

Explaining the vote in a letter to the Albuquerque Journal, Board of Education President Flora Sanchez wrote, "We believe it is essential for our children to learn the widely accepted theories and concepts of science to prepare them for possible scientific, engineering, teaching and medical careers. Even more importantly, this knowledge of science and the scientific method is vital for creating well informed citizens capable of critical thinking and making the appropriate personal, family, community and political decisions required in the 21st century."

The Kansas Board of Education continues to feel the fallout from its recent decision to remove evolution from the state's science standards. Most recently, three national science groups have refused to allow the board to use copyrighted materials because of its stance. The National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science told the board it may not use their materials since the new guidelines don't reflect the organizations'  goals of promoting good science. On Oct. 12 the board directed the state commissioner of education to rewrite the science guidelines without the copyrighted material.

Members of the Big Bone Baptist Church in Union, Ky., descended on Ryle High School Sept. 10 and distributed a creationist tome titled Refuting Evolution. More than a dozen members of the church manned three driveways leading into the school at the end of the school day. School officials later complained that group was on school property without permission and should not have been there. Church members said they did not realize the driveways were considered school property.

Supreme Court Should Allow Church And State To Cooperate, Says Bishop

A Roman Catholic bishop has urged six members of the U.S. Supreme Court and top government officials to allow greater cooperation between church and state.

Speaking at the annual "Red Mass" at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Oct. 3, Bishop Raymond Boland of Kansas City, said both church and state seek similar goals in areas like education, social services and health care and Awe have much to learn from each other."

Continued Boland, "Church and state have a lot in common in their mutual search for justice, in promoting respect for all laws, in their concern for the common good." He added that "In the enactment and administration of civil laws, people of faith do not expect privileges, but they do expect fairness....Is it possible to hope that, as we enter a new millennium, church and state in our land, and even the international world, may subscribe to a synthesis of basic principles which guarantee freedom for all while equally protecting the rights of believers and unbelievers?"

Elsewhere in his remarks, Boland, a native of Ireland, implied that American society is too secular, asking, "Is there a danger that devotees of secularism are >more equal' than those of us who are proud of the faith they profess? Do secular symbols enjoy more protection than religious symbols?"

The First Amendment, Boland asserted, was adopted by Congress "as protection for religion not protection from religion." He went on to say, "English teachers constantly warn their students that analogies and metaphors should not be pushed too far. Thomas Jefferson's famous >wall of separation' metaphor may have suffered this over extension, something certainly not supported by a complete examination of his legal philosophy nor the Constitution itself. The phrase has become a mantra. How high the wall? How impenetrable? Nobody denies the need for separation, but such does not exclude cooperation."

Continued Boland, "Maybe we need the equivalent of what manufacturers call R and D, research and development, to discover where we've been and to propose new ways of legally facilitating those who work with Caesar and walk with God."

Six Supreme Court justices attended the mass, among them Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. Also attending were Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer. Government officials in attendance included Attorney General Janet Reno, Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala and Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams.

The Supreme Court will consider an important case dealing with parochial school aid this year. Although Boland insisted after the mass that he was unaware of the case, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn criticized his sermon as an obvious attempt to apply pressure to the court.

"The judges are lured in, and then they are lobbied on the church's view of the Constitution," Lynn told USA Today. "It's a blatant effort to influence the court."

Washington's Red Mass occurs every year the Sunday before the Supreme Court reconvenes on the first Monday in October. The worship service is named for the red vestments traditionally worn by the officiating clergy.

Cardinal Law Questions High Court Appointees In Massachusetts

Cardinal Bernard Law of  Boston tried unsuccessfully to derail two appointees to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in September, associating them with "serious charges of anti-Catholicism."

The Roman Catholic prelate sent a letter to Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci (R) Sept. 22 in which he expressed concerns about Superior Court Judge Judith Cowin and Supreme Judicial Court Justice Margaret Marshall. Cellucci had nominated Cowin to fill a vacancy on the state high court and wanted Marshall to assume the position of chief justice.

Although Law raised questions about  the nominees' possible anti-Catholicism, he had little evidence to back up the charge. In his letter, Law referred to a 1997 discrimination case argued before Cowin involving a gay man who was fired by a Catholic hospital. The man was awarded $1.2 million in legal fees by a jury in a lower court, an amount that Cowin later increased on appeal. Cowin said the man deserved more money because he faced financial hardships in suing a powerful hospital backed by the "strength of the Catholic Church."

Law wrote that his concern with Marshall stems from a letter she wrote while serving as chief legal counsel for Harvard University in 1992.  In the letter, Marshall advised Harvard professor Mary Ann Glendon, an anti-abortion advocate, to stop using Harvard letterhead to promote her views on political issues.

Cellucci called Law's objections "preposterous" and said he would fight for the nominees. Law later had a private telephone conversation with Marshall and told the Boston Globe he was satisfied that the nominee is not anti-Catholic.

"We had a very good conversation," Law said. "She gave me her assurance that she was not anti-Catholic, and I have absolutely no reason to not accept her word on that."  Law then dropped his opposition to Marshall and Cowin.

But the controversy damaged both nominees. Both judges required approval from a body known as the Governor's Council, and in early October the two had to undergo hours of grilling from Council members, including defending themselves from charges of anti-Catholicism.

At the same time, members of an anti-abortion group called Massachusetts Citizens for Life launched a lobbying drive to derail Marshall's nomination. The group was on the warpath because Marshall, prior to her service on the court, was a member of the board of directors of Crittenton Hastings House, a home for unwed mothers that also provides abortions.

The effort to block the nominations of Cowin and Marshall was ultimately unsuccessful, however. On Oct. 13, the Governor's Council voted to approve both nominees. Marshall, who was approved by a 6-3 vote, now becomes the first woman to head Massachusetts' highest court.

Virginia School District Drops Plans For Posting Lord's Prayer In Schools

Members of the Appamattox County, Va., School Board have dropped a plan to post the Lord's Prayer in all public schools after Americans United advised the board that the proposal would violate the Constitution.

Board members voted unanimously in September to display the prayer after listening to a presentation by an evangelical preacher. The policy also called for the district's four schools to open each day with a moment of silence.

Alerted by members in the area, Americans United contacted school officials and advised them that public schools may not post religious documents like the Lord's Prayer.

"The reason for the constitutional prohibition on religious endorsements and preferences is not that the Constitution requires schools to be hostile toward religion, but that it requires schools to remain neutral on religious matters, by neither encouraging nor discouraging particular religious points of view," AU Litigation Counsel Ayesha Khan wrote to school officials. "In this way, schools demonstrate appropriate respect for the legal right of parents to direct the religious upbringing of their children."           

At a subsequent board meeting, members modified the policy to drop references to the Lord's Prayer. The new policy establishes a moment of silence in schools, saying that students may "meditate, pray or engage in any other silent activity which does not interfere with, distract or impede other pupils in the like exercise of individual choice."

Superintendent Walter F. Krug told the board that he believes the new policy is constitutional.

In other news about religion in public schools:

Americans United scored another victory recently when members of the North Kansas City School Board rejected a proposed Bible course put forth by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, a North Carolina-based Religious Right group.

In a letter to Superintendent Tom Cummings and board president Spencer Fields, AU attorney Khan warned that the National Council's curriculum is thinly disguised fundamentalist Christianity and that it would spark a lawsuit.

AI recognize that the Bible has considerable influence in Western literature and history and that it therefore has a proper role in public school study," Khan wrote. "However, experience demonstrates that there are enormous risks inherent in offering an elementary or secondary level course that is devoted exclusively to the Bible (as opposed to the full diversity of the world's religions). I have even greater concern here because the organization behind the effort to have the course added to your curricula has a demonstrated agenda that is inconsistent with constitutional requirements."

The board subsequently voted unanimously to reject the National Council's Bible curriculum.

The Augusta, Kan., School Board has voted to drop a policy that allowed students to read daily prayers over the school's public address system. The board had originally approved a policy permitting prayers in mid September. But members voted 4-3 to drop the idea after the American Civil Liberties Union threatened a lawsuit.

About 100 people showed up at a Sept. 20 board meeting to speak on the issue. Most favored the policy, although one woman, Becky Weston, whose daughter attends the local high school, threatened to sue if the practice continued.

"The kids can already pray," Weston said. "They've got absolute freedoms. I'm not sure why this has become an issue....This is not constitutionally sound. No one should have prayer forced upon them because someone decided it was time to pray."

Americans United, Others Drop Support For Religious Liberty Bill

Americans United and several other organizations have dropped their support of the Religious Liberty Protection Act (RLPA), legislation intended to enhance religious freedom protections placed in jeopardy by a nine-year-old Supreme Court ruling.

As originally conceived, the RLPA was seen as a bipartisan attempt to make certain that federal, state and local governments refrain from infringing on religious liberty. The legislation was a response to a 1990 Supreme Court ruling, Employment Division v. Smith, that reduced free exercise safeguards, making it harder for religious people to win in court when their needs conflict with state policy.

An earlier effort to address the problem, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed Congress and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. However, it was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1997.

Some participants in the coalition that drafted RLPA, including Americans United, believe the new legislation will meet the same fate if it becomes law. They point to a trio of decisions handed down by the high court earlier this year in cases that limited the federal government's power to regulate state and local governments.

Americans United also had concerns over the bill's potential impact on civil rights and charged that some of the conservative groups in the coalition were claiming that the legislation would offer new protections and rights to religious people that AU believes border on discrimination.

Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, said the organization still believes the Smith case was wrongly decided but no longer believes the RLPA is an appropriate remedy. Other organizations that have also dropped support for the RLPA include the National Council of Churches, the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, People For the American Way, the United Church of Christ and the Anti-Defamation League.

The RLPA passed the House of Representatives on a vote of 306 to 118 last July. It is pending in the Senate.