May 29, 2002

Teaching Alternative To Evolution Backed

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer

Two House Republicans are citing landmark education reform legislation in pressing for the adoption of a school science curriculum in their home state of Ohio that includes the teaching of an alternative to evolution.

In what both sides of the debate say is the first attempt of its kind, Reps. John A. Boehner and Steve Chabot have urged the Ohio Board of Education to consider the language in a conference report that accompanied the major education law enacted earlier this year.

"Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist," the lawmakers wrote in aletter to the Ohio board, quoting the conference report language.

That language was crafted with the help of a leading proponent of "intelligent design theory," which contends that the very complexity of life is evidence that the world was organized by a guiding intelligence.

The growing movement behind that theory, which does not attribute the world's creation to God, is supported by conservative Christian groups, whose drive to include the teaching of Bible-based "creation science" in public schools was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1987.

David Schnittger, a spokesman for Boehner, stressed that the conference report language cited in the March13 letter to Ohio's state board "does not endorse the teaching of any particular topic or philosophy or curriculum."

While conference report language does not have the force of law, it has in the past been used as the basis for regulations that guide how laws are enforced.

But many officials from science and education groups, most of whom back teaching only evolution, call the language part of a wider campaign to force intelligent-design theory into the nation's science classrooms. They fear that the congressional language will be used to challenge the teaching of evolution across the country.

"When language like this is included on the national level, it provides ammunition that people use in local battles," said W. Eric Meikle, outreach coordinator for the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit organization that defends the teaching of evolution.

Similarly, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and a supporter of the conference report language, said he opposes the teaching of intelligent design.

"I believe that public school classes should focus on teaching students how to understand and critically analyze genuine scientific theories. Unlike biological evolution, intelligent design is not a genuine scientific theory, and therefore, has no place in the curriculum of our nation's public school science classes," he said in a statement.

The Ohio school board has been embroiled for months in a controversy over whether to include intelligent-design theory, along with evolutionary science, in a revised science curriculum scheduled to be approved later this year. Evolutionary science holds that all existing organisms developed from earlier life forms through natural selection.

Proponents of the intelligent-design theory have cited language in the federal law as the basis for including lessons on the theory wherever evolution is taught. The letter from Boehner and Chabot was written in an attempt to clarify how federal law affects the debate in Ohio. Still, the head of the Ohio Board of Education is not sure what impact the House members' letter may have.

"[It] seems to suggest that science should be taught in the spirit of free inquiry, including the discussion of the pros and cons of theories," said Jennifer L. Sheets, the board's president.

Other board members say, however, that the letter could be interpreted as supporting intelligent design. "Supporters of that viewpoint will use that letter to bolster that point of view," said Virgil E. Brown, a Cleveland lawyer who sits on the state panel.

"I look at the letter as misleading," said Cyrus B. Richardson Jr., the board vice president. "It makes it sound like the law says you have to teach intelligent design, when that isn't in the law."

For that reason, science groups had opposed the conference report language, which was approved late last year.

"The apparently innocuous statements in this resolution mask an anti-evolution agenda that has been repeatedly rejected by the courts," said a joint letter signed by 80 educational and scientific groups, from the American Anthropological Association and the Society of Protozoologists to the National Association of Biology Teachers.

The nation's leading science organizations generally view intelligent-design theory as a pseudo-scientific way to teach creationism, the latest front in a battle that dates to the well-known 1925 conviction of Tennessee science teacher John T. Scopes for teaching evolution.

But intelligent-design theory apparently resonates with the public. In their letter to the Ohio board, Boehner, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and Chabot cited a 2001 Zogby poll that found that 71 percent of those surveyed supported offering students the "scientific evidence against evolution." The two lawmakers suggested that the exclusion of such evidence would amount to a "censorship of opposing points of view."

While Ohio is now the main battleground, in recent years legislatures or school boards in such states as Pennsylvania, Georgia, Hawaii, New Mexico, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Kansas have also been wrestling with the issue.

Intelligent-design proponents — such as Phillip E. Johnson, a University of California at Berkeley law professor whose 1991 book "Darwin on Trial" lifted the fledgling intelligent-design movement from obscurity — hope to bring the concept to other state curricula.

"If you are going to teach the Darwinist view that organisms may look like they were designed but weren't, then you have to allow for the possibility that they look like they were designed because they were designed," said Johnson, who helped draft the language that was eventually distilled into the conference report.

Johnson's writings make clear, however, that his aims extend into the realm of religion. "When people are taught for years on end that good thinking is naturalistic thinking, and that bringing God into the picture only leads to confusion and error, they have to be pretty dense not to get the point that God must be an illusion," he wrote in another book, "Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds."

The language that Johnson helped craft was originally introduced as a nonbinding resolution by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). The resolution passed the Senate last June in a 91 to 8 vote. Eight Republicans,who considered the measure an unwarranted intrusion into local curriculum matters, voted against it.

Senate supporters shrugged off the concerns of science groups, calling the measure an innocuous statement of the elements of good science education.

"We want children to be able to speak and examine various scientific theories on the basis of all of the information that is available to them," said Kennedy, who backed the Santorum measure.

Federal law has long barred Washington from controlling state and local school instructional content — a prohibition that has been guarded by GOP lawmakers through the years. With little attention, however, that outright prohibition was weakenedby Congress in 1994 when it barred the federal government only from controlling "specific" state or local instructional matters.

The education bill enacted earlier this year also suggested that Washington could exercise some general control over state and local curricula but not require the teaching of specific subjects. Federal education officials, however, said they have no intention of interpreting the language as requiring local school systems to teach alternatives to evolution.

Copyright 2002
The Washington Post Company