Evolution stickers ordered removed from textbooks

Friday, January 14, 2005

ATLANTA -- A federal judge on Thursday ordered the immediate removal of stickers placed in high school biology textbooks that call evolution "a theory, not a fact," saying they were an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

The disclaimers were put in the books by school officials in suburban Cobb County in 2002.

Some parents of students and the American Civil Liberties Union had challenged the stickers in court, arguing they violated the constitutional separation of church and state.

"This is a great day for Cobb County students," said attorney Michael Manely, who represented the parents who brought the lawsuit. "They're going to be permitted to learn science unadulterated by religious dogma."

School board members said in a written statement that they were disappointed by the ruling and were reviewing it to determine whether to appeal. A board spokesman said no decision had been made on when, or if, the stickers will be removed.

"The textbook stickers are a reasonable and evenhanded guide to science instruction and encouraging students to be critical thinkers," the boards statement says.

Schools in the suburban district just north of Atlanta placed the stickers after more than 2,000 parents complained the textbooks presented evolution as fact, without mentioning rival ideas about the beginnings of life.

During four days of testimony in federal court last November, the school system defended the warning stickers as a show of tolerance, not religious activism as some parents claimed. Its attorneys argued the school board had made a good-faith effort to address questions that inevitably arise during the teaching of evolution.

"Science and religion are related and they're not mutually exclusive," school district attorney Linwood Gunn had argued. "This sticker was an effort to get past that conflict and to teach good science."

The stickers read, "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered."

Manely argued that the sticker confuses the scientific definition of "theory" with its more general usage and said evolution was unfairly singled out from thousands of other scientific theories that received no disclaimer.

Jeffrey Selman, one of the parents who challenged the stickers, said he was exhilarated by the decision.

"I got what I wanted. I got the stickers removed. I didn't get into this to get rich or to get fame," said Selman, whose son is a fifth-grader in a Cobb County school.

In his ruling, Cooper said the stickers violate the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.

"While evolution is subject to criticism, particularly with respect to the mechanism by which it occurred, the sticker misleads students regarding the significance and value of evolution in the scientific community," Cooper wrote.

"By denigrating evolution, the school board appears to be endorsing the well-known prevailing alternative theory, creationism or variations thereof, even though the sticker does not specifically reference any alternative theories."

The school system has 30 days to appeal the ruling. Manely said he plans to follow up with the school officials to make sure the stickers are quickly removed. He said he will ask the court for help if they're not.

"What it tells students is that we're certain of everything else in this book except evolution," said Dr. Kenneth Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University and co-author of one of the Cobb County texts that was stickered.

Miller said he plans to travel to Philadelphia on Friday to meet with lawyers in a similar case, in which parents are suing the Dover, Penn., school system over the required teaching of "intelligent design." He said statewide debate in Kansas over similar teachings looms later this year.

The case is one of several battles waged in recent years throughout the nation over what role evolution should play in science books. Last year, Georgia's education chief proposed a science curriculum that dropped the word "evolution" in favor of "changes over time." That plan was soon scrapped amid protests by teachers.

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