Michigan school officials suggest offering students alternative to evolution

Monday, October 12, 1998

A proposal requiring public schools in a suburban Detroit district to educate students about the weaknesses of the theory of evolution has prompted civil rights advocates and a national science education group to argue that the district is trying to spur the teaching of creationism.

A curriculum subcommittee for the Melvindale-Northern Allen Park School Board unanimously adopted the plan earlier this month. The proposal's adoption came after months of study by the subcommittee, which was appointed by the school board in January to determine whether creationism should be taught alongside evolution in biology classes. The proposal also contains a list of books to be placed in Melvindale school libraries and used by science teachers.

“We strongly encourage science teachers to talk about the evidence on which scientific theories are based, as well as evidence that might be contrary to scientific theories,” the five paragraph proposal states. “We propose to have available to students resource materials that present evidence considered contrary to the scientific theory of evolution.”

The subcommittee, which wrote the proposal and the list of suggested materials, included the school board President John Rowe and the Rev. Don Wolan of Downriver Christian Community Church. Both men are self-described creationists and Wolan, in particular, has for months urged the school board to place the religious theory in the district's science classes. The subcommittee's proposal is now being considered by district officials.

“All we've ever said is there is a place for creationism, a theory, alongside evolution, also a theory,” Wolan told the Detroit News in January when the subcommittee was formed.

Wolan's argument in favor of public school teaching of creationism —– a religious belief that the universe and all its life forms were an act of God — is similar to that of William Jennings Bryant, the early 20th century politician who led a fundamentalist effort to muzzle the teaching of evolution in public schools.

Creationism is not a scientific theory, and federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have banned the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in public schools.

In 1982, a federal court in Arkansas invalidated a state “balanced treatment” law that required public schools to give equal time to “creation science” and “evolution science.” The court in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, ruled that “creation science” is not in fact a science. The court concluded that the Arkansas law violated the separation of church and state.

Five years later the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law that barred evolution from being taught in the public schools unless accompanied by the teaching of “creation science.”

The high court, voting 7-2 in Edwards v. Aguillard, noted that the establishment clause of the First Amendment requires the court “to invalidate statutes which advance religion in public elementary and secondary schools.”

Supporters of the Melvindale subcommittee's proposal argue it is needed to help widen students' understanding of the world around them.

“I used to teach evolution and I don't believe it anymore,” Rowe said. “Why can't kids learn about creationism as well as evolution?”

The National Center for Science Education, a California-based group, has been asked by Melvindale school officials to comment on the proposal and its list of materials.

Eugenie Scott, executive director for the center, said that while the proposal contains “explicit” wording that the recommended books are not to be used to promote religion, it nonetheless is being used to bring creationism into the science classrooms.

“The idea of the resolution is to improve the critical thinking of students by giving them all kinds of information,” Scott said. “Their arguments are essentially for equal time for creationism. The gist of the proposal is to give science teachers the right to present arguments against evolution.”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, writing for the majority in Aguillard, dismissed academic arguments in favor of creation science.

“It is equally clear that requiring schools to teach creation science with evolution does not advance academic freedom,” Brennan wrote. Instead Brennan wrote that the Louisiana law requiring the teaching of creation science had the sole purpose of discrediting evolution.

Scott says she has reviewed most of the books that Melvindale has suggested for its libraries and science classes. She dismisses most of them as “completely unacceptable.”

She says she will give her comments about the proposal and curriculum to Melvindale officials and “hope they pick the books that will do the least damage.”

Scott adds, however, that she believes the school board will ultimately come up with something “to keep the conservatives in the community happy.”

Officials with the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, however, said they are monitoring the situation to see if the school district accepts the proposal.

“Creationism is a biblical doctrine and not a scientific one,” said Gene Feingold, vice chairman of the ACLU's state board. “Over and over, the courts have held it violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.”

In May, the National Academy of Sciences issued a guidebook for public school teachers, Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science. The book, written by scientists and educators, maintains that students' understanding of Darwin's evolution theory has been undermined in part by political efforts to teach creationism.