Pennsylvania education board considers rules allowing teaching of creationism

Thursday, January 18, 2001

Debate over proposed science standards in Pennsylvania recently raised
the ire of scientists and First Amendment advocates who claim the rules would
effectively open the door to teaching public school students the Biblical
theory of creation alongside evolution.

Andrew Petto, an editor for the National Center for Science Education,
said the rules, if passed in their current form, would allow science teachers
to challenge the theory of evolution with religious-based ones.

“No other scientific theory is singled out like this,” Petto said.
“Singling out evolution is a sign that someone is trying to raise doubts
specifically about evolution and find a way to sneak creationism in.”

But microbiologist David Wert, chairman of the Creation Science
Fellowship in Pittsburgh, denounced such concerns as hysteria.

“It’s amazing how out of proportion the changes have been blown,” Wert
said. “Three or four sentences in the entire standard, and they think it’s the
end of the world.”

State education officials began crafting standards for teaching
science and technology more than two years ago. Initial drafts contained strong
evolutionary language, encouraging high school students to explain the concepts
of evolution and to understand “that present earth features and organisms arose
from materials and life forms of the past.”

But the most recent version, according to evolution experts, softened
the study of evolution by incorporating creationist language. They say such
phrases as “analyze the impact of new scientific facts on the theory of
evolution” and analyze “studies that support or do not support the theory of
evolution” leave room for doubt about evolution and suggest that the matter is
up for debate in the scientific community.

Petto, who also teaches science at the University of the Arts in
Philadelphia, admits that the changes amount to only a handful of sentences.
But he says the changes smack of creationism.

“The implication is, if we can show evolution is not an adequate
explanation, then creationism, by default, must be right,” Petto said in a
telephone interview.

Many scientists and First Amendment experts say the problem with
creationism is that it not only lacks the backing of the scientific community
at large, but it also promotes religion.

Both the People for the American Way and the American Civil Liberties
Union recently denounced the draft regulation, noting that teaching creationism
as science clearly violates the establishment clause of the First

The state chapter of the ACLU challenged the issue as recently as
1994, when it won a lawsuit filed against the Moon Area School District for
teaching creationism.

At the national level, the U.S. Supreme Court has twice in the past 40
years determined that teaching creationism in science courses equates to
teaching religion and, thus, violates the separation of church and state.

In the 1968 case Epperson v.
, the high court invalidated an Arkansas statute
prohibiting public school teachers from teaching evolution. The court said the
state law violated the establishment clause because it banned the teaching of
evolution solely on religious grounds.

Nearly two decades later in Edwards v.
, the high court voided a Louisiana statute that barred
the teaching of evolution in public schools unless accompanied by instruction
on creationism.

In Pennsylvania’s case, the original standards did not include such
language. But after public hearings last year, the state Board of Education
made revisions.

The state board has given its preliminary approval to these standards
and must now publish them in the Pennsylvania
the state’s official register, and send them to the
state attorney general and later to the state House and Senate education
committees for review. The published notice will trigger a 30-day public
comment period.

After that, the board may approve the standards in its current or
revised form and return it to the attorney general’s office and the General
Assembly for final review and approval.

“This is a rather lengthy process,” said Dan Langan, a spokesman for
the state Department of Education. “Remarks have been mixed. And there are many
more opportunities for Pennsylvania residents to participate as the process

Although the standards haven’t been approved, a national expert on the
teaching of evolution in public schools recently gave them a “C.”

Lawrence Lerner, a professor emeritus at California State University
at Long Beach, recently graded science-education standards for 49 states and
the District of Columbia for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. His report found
that many states succumbed to pressure to either water down the study of
evolution or to bolster the creation theory.

Lerner wrote that “the public is not nearly so ready as the scientists
to mandate that all schools teach evolution and only evolution. This important
political fact begins to explain the dilemma that state policy makers encounter
when they set about to promulgate standards for science education.”

He found that 31 states do an adequate-to-excellent job, while 19 do
“a weak-to-reprehensible” one. Of the 19 “weak” states, 12 avoid using the word
“evolution” in their standards and four avoid teaching it entirely.

At the time of the report’s release, four states, including
Pennsylvania, earned an “A.” But that was before the revisions. The new
standards, Lerner said in a telephone interview, justified dropping the state’s
score to a “C.”

“It’s very simple,” Lerner said. “You either teach good science or you
don’t teach good science. And creationism is not good science.”

Petto said public school teachers should teach science that is
generally accepted in the scientific community, not theories that have not
undergone significant review. He notes that Nobel Prize winners for science
often get such awards for 20 to 30 years of work because it takes that long for
their work to be accepted.

That aside, Petto says there simply isn’t any acceptable material
available for use in public schools concerning alternative theories to

“If you look at where you can find materials for use in this kind of
course, you won’t find it in the standard scientific education publishing
houses,” Petto said. “You find it in those publication houses that publish

Petto says the matter also opens the door for legal problems from a
First Amendment standpoint. The Biblical version of the creation of the world,
he says, is neither a universally shared point of view nor one accepted by
scientists. To introduce it in public schools is essentially introducing

Allowing the study of other viewpoints about the creation of the world
would transform such a class from a science course into a social studies
course, Lerner said.

“I have no problem with teaching these things in other types of
classes,” he said. “But that doesn’t seem to cut much ice with creationists.
They want to teach it as science.”

But Wert says that if anything is treated as dogma, it’s

“This is the only modern theory which does not allow dissenting
views,” he said. “And there’s always emerging evidence. To suggest that [such
views] can’t be raised is wrong. And these standards do not mandate (that
dissenting views be taught) but allow them to be raised.”

As for creationism itself, Wert says he doesn’t suggest that religious
elements be introduced but rather the historical information found within texts
such as the Bible.

But Petto says teaching creationism would diminish the quality of
education students receive.

“The issue here is (that) to introduce any of this stuff into the
science standards takes students away from the work scientists are really
doing,” Petto said. “(Introducing) religious ideas would really water down the
science education (and) that could be a terrible problem regardless of First
Amendment issues.”