Oklahoma lawmakers call for creationism in science textbooks

Friday, April 7, 2000

A bill moving through the Oklahoma Legislature requiring public school science textbooks to acknowledge God as the universe’s creator has prompted a national civil rights group to threaten litigation.

Earlier this week the Oklahoma House unanimously amended Senate Bill 1139 to require the State Textbook Committee to adopt science textbooks that “include acknowledgment that human life was created by one God of the Universe.”

The amendment’s sponsor, Republican state Rep. Jim Reese said the measure’s intent is to counteract evolution, which he claims undermines Christianity. Evolution, a central tenet of biology and based on evidence that life began more than 4 billion years ago, has historically been derided by some religious believers, who argue that the universe was created in a matter of days by God.

Rob Boston, assistant communications director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and author of a forth-coming book about the religious right, said Reese’s amendment could not survive a court challenge.

“There are so many things wrong with the bill, it is hard to know where to begin,” Boston said. “The representative’s attempts to get creationism in schools is clearly unconstitutional and a settled issue. But, I think more importantly the bill would place public school science teachers in a serious bind, for they would have no science textbooks to use. There are no science textbooks on the market that acknowledge God as creator of the universe.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has twice invalidated state efforts to force the biblical story to be taught as science in public schools.

In 1968, the high court in Epperson v. Arkansas struck down an Arkansas law that barred public schools from teaching evolution, calling it a blatant violation of the First Amendment.

“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,” wrote Justice Abe Fortas for the court in Epperson. “Plainly, the law is contrary to the mandate of the First, and in violation of the Fourteenth, Amendment to the Constitution.”

The court in 1987 forbade Louisiana from enforcing its “Creationism Act.” The Louisiana law prohibited public schools from teaching evolution unless accompanied by discussion of “creation science.”

Writing for the majority in Edwards v. Aguillard, Justice William Brennan said Louisiana’s attempt to force creationism to be discussed in public schools was intended to promote Christianity and therefore unconstitutional.

“The Creationism Act is designed either to promote the theory of creation science which embodies a particular religious tenet by requiring that creation science be taught whenever evolution is taught or to prohibit the teaching of a scientific theory disfavored by certain religious sects by forbidding the teaching of evolution when creation science is not also taught. The Establishment Clause, however, ‘forbids alike the preference of a religious doctrine or the prohibition of theory which is deemed antagonistic to a particular dogma.’ “

Last November, the Oklahoma State Textbook Committee voted to require textbook publishers to add a disclaimer to their books that says evolution is a “controversial theory” that refers “to unproven belief that random undirected forces produced a world of living things.”

That vote was nullified, however, when Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson said the committee had no authority to require the disclaimer.

The bill is now pending in a joint conference committee.