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Theoretically . . .

Ed Buckner

Skeptical Briefs Volume 15.1, March 2005

Our students here in Cobb County, Georgia, are being told by the school board to think critically, in fact told that scientific material should be approached “with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.” And this has irritated and worried some of us-parents like Jeff Selman, supporters of evolution, members of the ACLU, advocates of church-state separation, etc.-so much that a lawsuit was filed, demanding that this outrage be stopped. U.S. District Court Judge Clarence Cooper ruled that the outrage should be stopped. His ruling demonstrated what the Cobb County School Board called “unnecessary judicial intrusion into local control of schools"-judicial activism run amok, according to full page ads in the local paper. The school board has voted to appeal the judge’s decision. Local newspaper columnists and writers of letters to the editor have made it abundantly clear that the ACLU and those of us who support the case are anti-freedom, anti-science, anti-religion, socialists, and atheist devils to boot.

All of this started as far back as the mid-to-late 1800s, when science and Darwin conflicted directly with cherished religious views of fundamentalist Christians, especially in the southern United States. The more recent beginning of the brouhaha was in 2002, when the Cobb school board bowed partway to pressure from local fundamentalist activists and voted to paste a sticker into the front of certain specific science textbooks. The approved sticker did not say “Evolution should rightly be called ‘Evil-ution’ and is a communist plot.” It didn’t even say “Intelligent Design deserves careful consideration as a really swell alternative to Evolution.” What it did say seems at first glance remarkably innocuous and commonsensical. It ended with the language quoted above; it started with “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things.” The board-and the creationists who pressured them-no doubt thought, “Now who could argue with that?” No mention of religion or God. No attack on science. Just a bit of harmless pandering to the creationists.

Of course all these discordant, loud voices insisting that the sticker is properly educational or at least harmless are wrong. They ignore the facts:

As Judge Cooper himself mentioned in his ruling, “Whether the Sticker communicates a message of endorsement of religion is not really based on the Court’s factual findings but is ‘in large part a legal question to be answered on the basis of judicial interpretation of social facts.'” The reference to “social facts” has been quoted in the local press, supposedly to show that there really was no problem with the stickers and that the judge was engaged in judicial and social activism. Those who read all of Judge Cooper’s decision will find, however, that he was careful to explain the basis of his primary finding. He did not rule based on whether evolution is a theory or a fact, nor did he conclude that encouraging critical thinking is inappropriate. Indeed he found that the encouragement so offered was sincere, desirable, and met an appropriate secular purpose.

The court held that the sticker is unconstitutional because it “conveys an impermissible message of endorsement and tells some citizens that they are political outsiders while telling others that they are political insiders” and because it violates the Georgia constitutional provision regarding “Separation of Church and State.”

Ed Buckner

Ed Buckner is Southern Director for the Council for Secular Humanism; he was executive director of the Council from 2001 until 2003.