Oklahoma education officials vote for evolution disclaimer in science texts

Friday, November 12, 1999

A state committee, appointed by Oklahoma's Republican governor, has ordered all public school biology textbooks to include a disclaimer about evolution.

The Oklahoma State Textbook Committee unanimously voted last week to require textbook publishers to add a disclaimer that says evolution is a “controversial theory” that refers “to the unproven belief that random undirected forces produced a world of living things.” The disclaimer instructs pupils to “study hard and keep an open mind” because someday they may “contribute to the theories of how living things appeared on earth.”

The textbook committee is largely composed of members from a newly formed conservative education group called the Association of Professional Oklahoma Educators and includes only one science educator, The Tulsa World reported yesterday. Gov. Frank Keating created the committee.

John Dickmann, the committee member who introduced the disclaimer, said that his colleagues were “fed up with business as usual” and wanted textbook publishers to give more explanation of what he called microevolution.

Microevolution theory holds that changes may occur within species, but that species do not evolve into other species. It is a popular theory among creationists because it does not acknowledge evidence that higher forms of life evolved from lower ones.

“What we want is more information in the textbooks on microevolution, which does have a scientific basis,” Dickmann said. “Our disclaimer just asks students to think — we are not taking sides.”

Oklahoma is the latest of several states that have sought to send a discouraging message about evolution, which holds that single-celled organisms developed from complex molecules close to 4 billion years ago. This summer state education officials in Kansas and Kentucky downgraded the importance of evolution in those states' science-testing standards. Alabama has added a disclaimer similar to Oklahoma's to its textbooks.

A Louisiana public school board tried to force science teachers to warn students that evolution lessons should not “influence or dissuade the Biblical version of Creation or any other concept.” That school board policy, however, was found unconstitutional in August by a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The appeals court in that case, Freiler v. Tangipahoa, ruled that the school board created the policy to advance a Christian understanding of the universe's creation in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

The Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State has accused the Oklahoma State Textbook Committee of trying to protect the Bible-based story of creationism.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, yesterday sent letters to Keating, Oklahoma State Superintendent Sandy Garret and Secretary of Education Floyd Coppedge warning of possible litigation over the disclaimer.

“Having failed at their efforts to have creationism taught as a science in public schools, Religious Right activists are trying other strategies,” Lynn wrote. “Requiring the posting of anti-evolution disclaimers in biology books is one of these. This gambit should be rejected by Oklahoma.”

Joseph Conn, communications director for Americans United, said that it appeared the textbook committee “is trying to change the state science curriculum to conform to a fundamentalist viewpoint of the universe and its inhabitants.”

“We would like to think that all public officials are sensitive to the requirements of law and would take the right steps to avoid litigation,” Conn said.

Dickmann said he was aware that some people and groups were accusing the committee of defending creationism. “We never used the word 'creationism' in debating the disclaimer,” he said. “In fact, the word 'God' was never used. I don't think they could be successful in making this an issue of separation of church and state.”