New Mexico Board of Education backs teaching of evolution

Tuesday, October 12, 1999

Ignoring calls from Christian literalists to teach creationism in the public schools, the New Mexico Board of Education has decided that science teachers in its public schools will teach only evolution.

New Mexico's board apparently was not influenced by state education officials in Kansas and Kentucky who recently de-emphasized the teaching of evolution in their public science classes and opened the door to religious-based discussion of the universe's creation.

On Oct. 8, the New Mexico Board of Education voted 13-1 to approve new science education standards that require only evolution be taught in the state's science classes. Marshall Berman, the board member who offered the changes and won election to the board last year by defeating a 20-year incumbent who advocated creationism in public schools, lauded the change as a victory for enlightenment.

“Today, good science won a major victory,” Berman, also founder of the Coalition for Excellence in Science and Math Education, said in a prepared statement. “But this is not a time to relax. Creationists have scored heavily around the country. Perhaps it is only natural for attacks on science to wax and wane over the decades, but we cannot afford to lose any more battles.”

Last August the Kansas Board of Education eliminated from its standards consideration of any aspects of evolution that examine the origins of Earth and life and processes which may give rise to the formation of new species. The Kansas board's action was influenced by creationists who claim a divine being created the Earth and all its inhabitants in a matter of days. Scientists say evidence indicates that life began almost 4 billion years ago and has been evolving ever since.

Earlier this month the Kentucky Education Department deleted the word “evolution” from state guidelines and substituted it with “change over time.” Some state biology teachers derided the change as censorship of evolution.

Meanwhile, for years a Louisiana public school district has been fighting court battles to teach “creation science” in the classrooms. The district's latest effort included attaching disclaimers to textbooks, which said that evolution should not dissuade students from believing in Christianity. In mid-August, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated the Louisiana school district's approach as a violation of the separation of church and state.

Molleen Matsumura, network project director for the National Center for Science Education, said that creationist organizations had fueled state efforts to alter the way evolution is taught.

“There is no doubt that the way the New Mexico standards were created, confusion existed among teachers as to whether creationism could be taught,” Matsumura said. “The changes were adopted by the board to help science teachers who need the backing to teach modern science.”

Matsumura also noted that states such as California and Texas had recently created guidelines that reinforce the teaching of evolution.

California's “Policy on the Teaching of Natural Sciences” states, in part, that “philosophical and religious beliefs are based, at least in part, on faith and are not subject to scientific test and refutation,” and that “such beliefs should be discussed in the social science and language arts curricula.”

Van W. Witt, the only New Mexico board member to dissent, called creationism a theory that students should be allowed to consider in science classes. According to a 1997 Gallup poll, 44% of the respondents stated that they believed God created humans, in their present form, and everything else in the universe within the last 10,000 years or so.

In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded in its Epperson v. Arkansas decision that religious beliefs should not skew the teaching of science in the state's public institutions. The high court invalidated an Arkansas law that made it illegal to teach “that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals.”

“Arkansas did not seek to excise from the curricula of its schools and universities all discussion of the origin of man,” Justice Abe Fortas wrote in Epperson. “The law's effort was confined to an attempt to blot out a particular theory because of its supposed conflict with the Biblical account, literally read. There is and can be no doubt that the First Amendment does not permit the state to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma.”