Evolution Evasion

How A Religious Right Drive To Censor Evolution In Public Schools Has Torn Kansans Apart And Ignited A New National Debate Over Church And State

In 1925, Baltimore Evening Sun correspondent H. L. Mencken gained national notoriety for his coverage of Tennessee v. Scopes, better known as the Scopes Monkey Trial.

Appalled when a jury convicted a 24-year-old science teacher of violating Tennessee's Butler Law, which barred teaching of evolution in public schools, Mencken wrote, "Let no one mistake it for comedy, farcical though it may be in all its details. It serves notice on the country that Neanderthal man is organizing in these forlorn backwaters of the land, led by a fanatic, rid of sense and devoid of conscience. There are other states that had better look to their arsenals before the hun is at their gates."

In 1999, Mencken's "hun" reached Kansas.

After over a year of heated hearings and political posturing, a 6-4 majority of the Kansas Board of Education voted Aug. 11 to approve a state science curriculum with virtually no reference to evolutionary biology. Related concepts such as natural selection, species' common ancestry, geologic time and the Big Bang were also omitted.

By effectively censoring evolution and related subjects from the 71-page science curriculum, the Kansas Board of Education has created one of the most notable evolution controversies in recent memory, and the move appears to be part of a larger political and policy trend that has been evolving nationwide in recent years.

The conflict in Kansas began over a year ago with little fanfare. In October, a committee of 27 science instructors, each appointed by Kansas Commissioner of Education Andy Tompkins, created a curriculum for the board after over a year of research. Using the National Science Education Standards as a foundation, the committee's proposal included two full pages on evolutionary biology, describing it as the "broad, unifying theoretical framework in biology."

However, the school board could not reach a consensus in support of the proposal, and members hit a 5-5 deadlock. Board member Steve Abrams (R-Arkansas City) led the opposition to the science instructors' curriculum, insisting it did not reflect enough "good" science.

When a compromise could not be reached on the proposed science standards, the board voted to create a subcommittee to design an alternative proposal. Abrams, a former Kansas Republican Party chairman and an aggressive opponent of evolution, was selected to chair the panel. He was joined by another Religious Right favorite, Scott Hill (R-Abilene). Harold Voth (R-Haven), who had previously voted with board moderates in support of the curriculum that included evolution, was selected as the third subcommittee member.

Guiding his subcommittee toward an anti-evolution position, Abrams sought assistance from the Creation Science Association For Mid-America, a fundamentalist Christian organization that lists among its objectives "to inspire in unbelievers and encourage faith of believers, in the Bible as the word of God, and therefore the only trustworthy source of information regarding the meaning, purpose, destiny and conduct of human lives." According to its materials, the Cleveland-based group also insists that "biblical creation, because it is true, is the only 'scientific' explanation of origins, and therefore is the only account of origins that can possibly be useful to science."

With help from the creationist group, Abrams' committee produced a first draft of his curriculum that removed evolution and included a statement that the earth's complexity implies "an intelligent designer." That language, however, was later removed.

Hearings on the controversy went on through the summer around the state, and Abrams' committee developed five different drafts of a science curriculum before the board approved its guidelines. None of the drafts included discussion of evolution.

In the meetings immediately preceding the vote, many of those who addressed the board asked that Abrams' proposal be rejected.

"Evolution is not a theory, it is a fact," Michael Crawford, a University of Kansas biology professor, told the board. "We cannot replace science with mythology. We cannot go back to the time that the church said that the earth was the center of the universe, that the earth is flat."

A similar message was delivered a week before the final vote, when the presidents of all six state universities in Kansas sent a letter to the board, urging them to reject the proposal that deleted evolution. The presidents argued that the curriculum "will set Kansas back a century and give hard-to-find science teachers no choice but to pursue other career fields or assignments outside of Kansas."

That view, however, was rejected by many Religious Right activists who spoke against evolutionary biology.

"I want my kids not taught the evolutionary theories," said Michael Jackson, a resident of Hutchinson, Kansas. "I don't believe there is any truth to them."

The 5-5 split within the board was broken when Voth, the "moderate" of Abrams' subcommittee, gave the revised curriculum the needed sixth vote. He announced at the meeting that most of the people from his district who had contacted him favored the evolution-free guidelines, and he hoped that his vote would help the board move on to other matters. Voth maintained, however, that creationism should not be taught in science classes because it is religiously based.

John Staver, director of the Center for Science Education at Kansas State University and co-chair of the original 27-member committee, described the new standards as a "travesty." He told the board that the science educators who created the original guidelines wanted their names removed from the final standards.

The new curriculum will not be mandatory for local school districts, but it will be the basis for statewide exams, so teachers will be encouraged to follow the guidelines to ensure their students do well on Kansas' standardized tests. School performance on the state exams is directly tied to school accreditation.

Reaction from around the nation was immediate and overwhelmingly critical, with many columnists, editorial writers and political cartoonists lambasting the Board of Education's move.

The New York Times ran an editorial expressing "deep sadness" on the matter. "Religious and cultural conservatives on the board may have thought they were taking a bold stand against a scientific theory they regard as a threat to 'creationist beliefs'...But the real losers here will be the very schoolchildren the board members thought they were protecting," the Times editorial said.

The Washington Post described the board's action as "deeply uncomfortable both in terms of First Amendment values and in terms of students being educated in the actual state of biological science. Though couched as criticism of the scientific inadequacy of evolutionary theory, the revisions clearly serve a religious purpose."

Even Bill Nye, best known as the creator and host of public television's "Bill Nye the Science Guy" show, issued a statement criticizing the move. "To reject this fundamental, beautiful thing about the world around us is harebrained," Nye said. "It's nutty."

While the national reaction was quick, the effect of the board's decision may not be. The new standards will not be used as the basis for statewide tests given to Kansas' students in the 7th and 11th grades until the spring of 2001.

The day after the board's vote to approve the guidelines, Harry McDonald, president of the Kansas Association of Biology Teachers, spoke to the Wichita Eagle about his concerns.

"As far as tomorrow, in most classrooms, it's probably not going to make any difference," McDonald said. "But 20 years from now, if these standards still exist, you're going to begin to notice something. We're going to start looking around and saying, 'What happened to science education in Kansas?' And we'll have a hard time putting our finger on it."

In the meantime, with hundreds of school boards in the state, there could be hundreds of different decisions about how to teach science. McDonald noted that evolution's absence from the state guidelines could influence teachers to omit the concept because it will not appear on statewide assessment tests.

"Many districts, not with any particular agenda, will leave out evolution because, obviously, it must not be important," McDonald told the Eagle. "Why spend our time teaching something that isn't going to be assessed?"

In some instances, teachers who may want to teach evolutionary biology may feel that they lack the support they need.

"In a conservative community where you've got one or two science teachers and you don't have the support of a department or the school board backing you, that's a very different situation," Steve Case, a Kansas spokesman for Citizens for Science, told the Eagle. "Ordinarily, when a group comes in and demands that something be in the curriculum, you go to your state standards and say, 'Here is what the state says is good science.' That's the leg you stand on. Now the board has cut those legs out from under them."

Many remain hopeful that the local school boards will keep evolution as part of their own science curriculum, in spite of the new science standards.

"There are 304 locally elected school boards who have the option to tell the state board to go jump in a lake," Mike Matson, a spokesman for Gov. Bill Graves (R), told The New York Times. "The Governor is confident the overwhelming number will."

In fact, some already have. The superintendent and board president in Auburn-Washburn, one of five school districts in Topeka, have already pledged that evolution will be in the district's science classes. "They'll get evolution here," Elaine Pardee, a science teacher at Washburn Rural High, told The New York Times. "We're not going to cheat our kids."

But while some school districts promptly announced evolution would still be a part of their curriculum, it appears that the small rural town of Pratt, Kan., might be the first battleground in the fallout over the Board of Education's new standards.

Chris Mammoliti, an employee of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, has already asked the Pratt County school board to teach something called "intelligent design," a religious concept advanced by creationists that says life is too complex to have evolved through natural selection so there must have been a designer.

Mammoliti's proposal may be welcomed with open arms. Willa Beth Mills, president of the Pratt school board, told The New York Times she applauds the removal of evolution from the science curriculum and hopes it may lead to creationism being introduced in Pratt schools.

"I don't think it's relegated to Sunday school," Mills told the Times. "If you present the material to students with critical thinking, and they come to you with a paper supporting creationism, or arguing against evolutionary theory from a creationist point of view, you should accept that."

While the state board's action is troubling to those concerned with quality education, there are legal matters to be considered as well.

The U.S. Supreme Court has issued two landmark rulings on evolution controversies. In 1968, the high court ruled unanimously in Epperson v. Arkansas that a state could not ban the teaching of evolution in public schools. Justice Abe Fortas wrote that an Arkansas law forbidding instruction about evolution could not be considered "an act of religious neutrality," and added that the law was unconstitutional because it was "an attempt to blot out a particular theory because of its supposed conflict with the Biblical account, literally read."

Nineteen years later, in 1987, the Supreme Court ruled in Edwards v. Aguillard that a Louisiana law that mandated the teaching of "creation science" alongside evolution was unconstitutional. Justice William Brennan, writing for the majority, said the law ran afoul of church-state separation "because it seeks to employ the symbolic and financial support of government to achieve a religious purpose."

More recently, just two days after Kansas approved the evolution-less science guidelines, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals weighed in on the evolution debate. In Freiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education, the appellate court found unconstitutional a local Louisiana school board's requirement that teachers read a "disclaimer" that evolution should not "dissuade the Biblical version of Creation," ruling that the practice is aimed at the "protection and maintenance of a particular religious viewpoint."

But a legal challenge to the curriculum passed in Kansas could prove to be more difficult, in spite of precedent from the Supreme Court. The board's action did not specifically ban the teaching of evolution, nor include references to creationism. Since local school districts are not necessarily bound by the science guidelines, and with some districts in Kansas having already announced that they will continue to include evolution in their science classes, it could be difficult to prove that the board's decision advances religion.

"At this point, we are still looking into the matter," said Steven K. Green, legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "We are carefully scrutinizing the curriculum passed by the board and watching how local districts implement the guidelines. We are clearly concerned about how districts will respond."

Green contacted the state board the day before the final vote on the curriculum, warning that legal action may be necessary "if the new standards are found to favor a creationist perspective." When the Kansas media reported on Green's correspondence, Americans United received an outpouring of calls and e-mails from Kansans outraged by the efforts of the board. Those expressing support for AU's stance ran the gamut of state residents, from science teachers and academics, to parents and Christian ministers, all of whom disapproved of the state board's action.

The response from local clergy highlights an often-overlooked facet of the debate. Most Christian denominations, as well as other religious groups, have little trouble reconciling faith and science. Accordingly, the debate is not between religion and science, but rather between religious fundamentalists and available scientific evidence.

There will be a significant political impact as well, and it appears the political fallout may be most directly felt by the Board of Education itself. Gov. Graves, outraged by the board's vote, issued a one-sentence statement to the press after the new curriculum was passed. It read: "This is a terrible, tragic, embarrassing solution to a problem that did not exist."

Those sentiments were shared by State Rep. David Adkins (R-Leawood), who announced Aug. 23 that he would sponsor a resolution urging the state legislature to condemn the board's action. Adkins also said that he would consider introducing an amendment to the state constitution that would make state board elections non-partisan and add an 11th member to be appointed by the governor.

"I believe the board provided us with an exclamation point behind the question of whether the current board is serving Kansans," Adkins told the Wichita Eagle. He added, "My resolution will send the message that the state isn't filled with yahoos."

The complaints levied against Republicans on the Board of Education by GOP moderates such as Adkins and Graves highlight a larger struggle in Kansas politics.

In recent years, a concerted drive on the part of Religious Right activists has deeply divided the state Republican Party. Those struggles came to a peak in August 1998 when a faction of Religious Right supporters attempted to oust Graves during the Republican primary in the state's gubernatorial race. While their efforts were insufficient-- Graves defeated the former head of the Kansas Christian Coalition David Miller, 73-27 percent--the far right did fare better in other lower-profile races, as evidenced by their control over the state Board of Education. A year later, there are still significant fissures within the state's Republican apparatus that the evolution controversy will only exacerbate.

The political shockwaves even reached the national level when reporters began asking presidential candidates on the campaign trail what they thought about the developments in Kansas.

Among Democratic candidates, Vice President Al Gore, generally recognized for his scientific knowledge and background, surprised many when a member of his campaign staff suggested that schools should be able to teach creationism.

According to a Reuters report, Alejandro Cabrera, a spokesman for Gore, said the vice president personally supports teaching evolution, but believes local schools should be permitted to teach creationism. Upon discovery that the practice would be in conflict with current law, Cabrera called Reuters back to clarify that Gore "supports the right of school boards to teach creationism within the context of religious courses and not science courses." Later that day, a spokeswoman for the Gore campaign definitively said that the vice president thought the Kansas board had made a "mistake" and he opposed the decision to remove evolution from the curriculum.

Former Sen. Bill Bradley also declared his support for evolution being taught in public schools, but withheld criticism of the Kansas decision.

On the other side of aisle, every Republican candidate responded with support for "state and local" control of the evolution issue. GOP front-runner Gov. George W. Bush, told NBC Nightly News, "It's up to local districts to make decisions on how to achieve standards of excellence as far as I'm concerned." A spokeswoman for the Bush campaign told The Washington Post that Bush "believes both creationism and evolution should be taught."

But some candidates went even further. Steve Forbes said that specific illustrations of evolution, from science textbooks he could not name, are "a massive fraud." Former Vice President Dan Quayle, according to a report in the on-line magazine Slate, went so far as to attribute the criticism of creationism to "a hostile environment against religion." Gary Bauer told The Washington Post, "Evolution...is taught with the idea that life arose spontaneously and that there is no divine intelligence involved. I just reject the basic tenet of that theory...and so do most Americans."

While Bauer's scientific analysis may be faulty, his reading of polls appears to be accurate.

According to a recent Gallup poll, about 44 percent of Americans believe that "God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years." Forty percent believe evolution has occurred, but that God has overseen the process. A similar poll, published by CNN and USA Today, showed 40 percent of respondents supported teaching creationism instead of evolution in public schools, and 68 percent teaching creationism along with evolution.

Harvard Professor Stephen Jay Gould, who referred to the Kansas controversy as the "latest episode in the long, sad history of American anti-intellectualism," was asked about the popular support for creationism on CNN's "Crossfire."

"I don't find the poll results discouraging," Gould said. "I think it just expresses that sense of fairness that Americans have, combined with, unfortunately, our dismal understanding of science, which leads most people not really to grasp how well-documented evolution is and how little a threat it is to religious values or to ethical principles."

Nevertheless, because of widespread disbelief in evolutionary biology, controversies such as the one in Kansas are not isolated incidents. In fact, many believe fights over the issue are becoming even more common, despite the fact that scientists around the world have accepted the reality of evolution throughout the 20th century.

The tactics, however, are changing. Whereas opponents of evolution used to simply attempt to introduce creationism into schools, court decisions now prevent them from doing so. So instead of bringing religion into the classroom, opponents are now creatively trying to drag evolution out.

Throughout the Kansas controversy, for example, those opposed to evolution rarely mentioned religion. Rather, the attacks on evolution were centered around rhetoric of science and academic freedom. Religion was rarely used publicly as a motivating factor, particularly among members of the Board of Education.

Even Religious Right pugilist Jerry Falwell, in his defense of the Kansas decision, cast the issue as one of "academic freedom." Similarly, Beverly LaHaye, founder and chairwoman of Concerned Women for America, said Kansas students should compare creationism and evolution as "exercises in freethinking and critical analysis."

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, disagrees.

"Creationism is not science, it is a religious concept," said Lynn, who is an ordained United Church of Christ minister, as well as an attorney. "Frankly, it has no place in any science class. We don't teach public school students that some people believe the earth is round while others think it's flat, and then let them pick which to believe. We owe it to the students to teach them the best science we can."

Evolution opponents are also finding success by putting increased pressure on elected officials. In just the last two years, a total of six state legislatures have considered bills that would have promoted creationism or undermined evolution in public school science classes. In addition, since 1995, state education boards in seven states -- Alabama, Arizona, Illinois, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas and now Kansas -- have attempted to either remove or denigrate evolution in state curricula.

Attacks on evolution have not only changed in a strategic sense, they have also taken on a more strident tone.

Mark Looy of a creationist group called Answers in Genesis has said that teaching evolution can lead to dangerous societal consequences.

"Students in public schools are being taught that evolution is a fact, that they're just products of survival of the fittest," Looy told The New York Times. "There's not meaning in life if we're just animals in a struggle for survival. It creates a sense of purposelessness and hopelessness, which I think leads to things like pain, murder and suicide."

U.S. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) shared a similar sentiment on the House floor June 16. During a debate on juvenile crime, DeLay said tragedies like the murders in Littleton, Colo., happen "because our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized [sic] out of some primordial soup of mud."

Four days later, on ABC's This Week, George Will asked DeLay if he actually believed there was a causal relationship between teaching evolution and violence. Refusing to back down, DeLay said, "There's a causal fact of not giving children choices....You know, evolutionary theory is nothing but a theory. In my opinion, creation is not a theory, because I believe in God and he created the earth."

Unfortunately, in some instances, Religious Right activists win when good teachers simply get tired of fighting the battle to teach students the science they deserve.

John Wachholz, for example, has been teaching biology at Salina Central High School in central Kansas since 1972. He recently told The Washington Post he is considering retirement in light of the board's new guidelines.

After 27 years of telling his students that he will not teach religion in his class, Wachholz believes the opposition to evolution is getting worse.

"This thing will drive me out of teaching," he told the Post. "I'm a science teacher. If I teach biology without evolution, I'd be doing an injustice to students, and to myself."