ATLANTA — A federal judge Thursday ordered a suburban Atlanta school system to remove stickers from its high school biology textbooks that call evolution “a theory, not a fact,” saying the disclaimers are an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.
“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,” U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper said.
The stickers were put inside the books’ front covers by public school officials in Cobb County in 2002. They 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.”
“This is a great day for Cobb County students,” said Michael Manely, an attorney for the parents who sued over the stickers. “They’re going to be permitted to learn science unadulterated by religious dogma.”
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In a statement, the school board said it was disappointed by the ruling and will decide whether to appeal. A board spokesman said no decision had been made on when, or if, the stickers would be removed.
“The textbook stickers are a reasonable and evenhanded guide to science instruction and encouraging students to be critical thinkers,” the board said.
2,000 complaints from parents
The stickers were added after more than 2,000 parents complained that the textbooks presented evolution as fact, without mentioning rival ideas about the beginnings of life, such as the biblical story of creation.
Six parents and the American Civil Liberties Union then sued, contending the disclaimers violated the separation of church and state and unfairly singled out evolution from thousands of other scientific theories as suspect.
At a trial in federal court in November, the school system defended the stickers as a show of tolerance, not religious activism.
“Science and religion are related and they’re not mutually exclusive,” school district attorney Linwood Gunn said. “This sticker was an effort to get past that conflict and to teach good science.”
But the judge disagreed: “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.”
Battles around the country
The case is one of several battles waged around the country in recent years over what role evolution should play in the teaching of science.
Last year, Georgia’s education chief proposed a science curriculum that dropped the word “evolution” in favor of “changes over time.” The idea was dropped amid protests from teachers.
A school district in Dover, Pa., has been locked in a dispute over a requirement that science students be told about “intelligent design” — the concept that the universe is so complex it must have been created by some higher power.
Officials in Alabama said they do not think Thursday’s ruling affects the several-paragraph evolution disclaimer in the front of that state’s science books.
The disclaimer says that “any statement about life’s origins should be considered theory, not fact,” and lists four of the “many unanswered questions about the origin of life which are not mentioned in your textbook.” One of the questions is, “How did you and all living things come to possess such a complete and complex set of ‘Instructions’ for building a living body?”
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