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Secular World


The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 15, Number 3.


Religion to Mix with Science in Idaho School District

by Gary L. Bennett

This spring the New Plymouth (Idaho) School Board voted unanimously to take its science classes back to the time of ancient Babylon, despite protests by the American Civil Liberties Union, a group of concerned scientists, and several residents.

Under the leadership of Superintendent Ryan Kerby, the school board adopted a policy entitled "Origins of Universe, Solar System, Earth, and Life." In promulgating the policy, the board argued that it was "making an effort to take a position which is respectful to all individuals residing in the Districts." In other words, it was trying to satisfy biblical creationists as well as parents who want their children to receive a good science education.

At first glance the policy seems innocuous enough. It states that "Proper teaching requires presentation of science as open-ended and without preset conclusions." Where the policy first goes astray is that it mixes hypotheses about the origins of life with theories of evolution.

Evolution itself is silent on how life originated. Instead, evolution deals with the "change in the hereditary characteristics of groups of organisms over the course of generations" (National Academy of Sciences definition). In contrast, creationism is based on the unsupported religious belief that the universe and all life were miraculously created six or ten thousand years ago, and that there have been no major modifications since.

A month before the school board's vote, the ACLU received complaints by New Plymouth residents of the proposed position on "origins." After reviewing the proposal, Jack Van Valkenburgh, executive director of ACLU of Idaho, faxed a letter to the school board and alerted Dr. Terry Maley, a professional geologist from Boise and the author of Exploring Idaho Geology. Dr. Maley wrote a comprehensive statement on the school board's proposed policy in which he clearly described how the policy confused "origins" with "evolution." Dr. Maley's critique, which was also signed by two other professional scientists from Boise, was faxed to the board the same day that the ACLU's letter was faxed.

In the ACLU's letter, Van Valkenburgh noted the confusion of "origins" and "evolution" and pointed out that the policy statement "presents what is a well-established science to be a subject of serious scientific uncertainty, which it is not."

A month later, when the New Plymouth School Board met to adopt the policy statement, a resident testified against the proposed policy and mentioned the scientists' letter that had been submitted to the board. It was then learned that board members had never seen or even been told of it! Superintendent Kerby had not distributed it to them, even though the letter, faxed to the school district office, was personally addressed to each of them. Despite their not having seen the scientists' letter, the board did not wait to review it, instead voting unanimously that night to adopt the proposed position.

The policy, which is similar to one adopted by the Post Falls School Board in 1998, exposed its creationist bias in its conclusions where it is stated that "some scientists" believed "that many species seem to have appeared suddenly with no known ancestors."

Kerby justified the newly adopted policy "as a tool to help teach students critical thinking skills, how to make evaluative decisions and empowers [sic] them to discover and understand the natural world" (Tracy Widner, Independent-Enterprise, April 14, 1999). Unfortunately for the students in the New Plymouth school district, the policy will have the opposite effect. Creationists throw out "natural law" and invoke divine intervention whenever they can't find any evidence to justify their beliefs. This is not science and teaching such antiscience as truth will actually damage the "critical thinking skills" of the New Plymouth students.

Try, Try Again

For the New Plymouth School Board this backward march is not something new. In November 1998, the New Plymouth School Board spearheaded a resolution before the Idaho School Boards Association to eliminate the teaching of evolution "where evolution is accepted as fact." Moreover, this resolution was to be applied to library books and textbooks, thereby attacking the First Amendment. The New Plymouth Board's justification for this resolution, which last year was not successful, is that "common schools should not teach or promote concepts that tear at the fabric of what is being taught in homes." No doubt, southern segregationists would have warmly welcomed such a statement during the civil rights era.

The plan of the backers of last year's failed resolution is to continue submitting creationist-inspired resolutions until they can get one passed. Ignoring the Idaho Constitution's prohibition against teaching a religious doctrine in the schools, they hope for legislation to implement their resolution. Given the makeup of the New Plymouth School Board one can only hope that they will follow the advice of Paul who, in his first epistle to the Thessalonians, wrote (5:21): "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." To date, the New Plymouth School Board seems to be doing exactly the opposite.


Gary L. Bennett is an ACLU member and frequent contributor to the Boise Weekly. This article first appeared in the Summer 1999 Idaho Liberty.


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