Sticker Shock: Georgia School District Drops Evolution Disclaimer Fight, as Creationist Forces Lose Another Round in the War over Science Education
Leaming, Jeremy, Church & State
Jeffrey Selman never intended to be such a public proponent of the separation of church and state, even though he has always considered himself an advocate for that long-cherished American principle.
But when the suburban Atlanta computer programmer learned that his son's public school district planned to place stickers questioning evolution in science textbooks, his circumstances were swiftly altered.
The Cobb County school system is the second largest public school district in Georgia, but in 2002, the board of education surrendered to a religious pressure campaign and announced its plan to warn students that evolution is "a theory, not a fact" and that it should be "critically considered."
Up until that point, Selman told Church & State, it had felt as if he had been "sleepwalking through a democracy." He had assumed that it was "a done deal" that religion could not be taught in the science curriculum and that public schools could not take actions to undermine the teaching of evolution for religious reasons.
After reading about the school board's move in a local newspaper, Selman placed a call to the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. He also made appearances before the school board, urging its members to reverse their decision.
Selman said his pleas to the board were shunned, and it soon became apparent that litigation was the only alternative. When the Georgia ACLU called to ask if he was interested in being a plaintiff, he readily agreed.
"I said, yeah, go for it," recalled Selman. Other Cobb County parents later joined the Selman v. Cobb County School Board lawsuit.
Selman's very public foray into activism on behalf of church-state separation--the case drew national and international media attention--ended with a victory last December, when Cobb County school officials entered a broad-based agreement promising to abide by constitutional mandates.
The Dec. 19 settlement states that Cobb County school officials are barred "from restoring to the science textbooks of students in the Cobb County schools any stickers, labels, stamps, inscriptions, or other warnings or disclaimers bearing language substantially similar to that used on the sticker that is the subject of this action." Moreover, it prohibits school officials from taking any other actions that would "prevent or hinder the teaching of evolution in the School District."
Selman, who during the course of litigation also was elected president of the Georgia chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, lauded the school board.
"The settlement brings to an end a long battle to keep our science classes free of political or religious agendas," he said. "I am very pleased that the Cobb school board has dropped its defense of the anti-evolution policy."
The settlement, which was brought about with substantial legal help from Americans United, is another big setback for Religious Right activists who are waging war on public schools. They have long sought to force the teaching of creationism or its latest variant, "intelligent design," in science classes.
The federal courts have repeatedly rejected that crusade, ruling that the teaching of religion in public schools is unconstitutional. In the most recent ruling in December 2005, a federal judge invalidated the Dover, Pa., school district's attempt to teach intelligent design.
To circumvent the courts, some Religious Right forces are trying a new maneuver, urging public schools to question the validity of evolution without publicly putting forward a religious alternative to the scientific concept.
The Discovery Institute, one of the nation's leading proponents of intelligent design, weighed in heavily on the side of the Georgia anti-evolution stickers, saying that a final decision in the case would "be at least as important, if not more important, than the Dover school district case last year. …