Pennsylvania's School of Creationism
Published on Monday, December 20, 2004 by the Independent/UK
The School of Creationism
Children in a Pennsylvania Town Will be Taught that God Made the World, Igniting a Debate Which Splits the US.
by Andrew Buncombe in Dover, Pennsylvania
 

Was the landscape around the small town of Dover in Pennsylvania created in just six days? Were the gently curving hills perfected, the streams formed and finished, the wide, empty skies fixed in place beneath the firmament and the narrow wooded valleys completed? Was it all really done in less than a week?

It was, at least according to the creationist beliefs of much of the town's population of 1,800, who have little time for Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. And their fundamental beliefs are set to gain further currency.

As of next month, in a hugely controversial move, the town's high school will become the first in the US for several generations to teach a form of creationism as part of its curriculum.

But the controversy that has split the town of Dover, an hour's drive north of Baltimore, is not simply some local squabble. Rather it is a debate that is taking place in communities across the US.

Classrooms, courtrooms, public places, even the very pledges that officials swear when taking office have become the focus of a bitterly contested and growing dispute about whether Christianity should be officially incorporated into civic life or if there should be a real and meaningful separation of church and state.

It is a row that has pitched Christian against Christian, scientist against scientist.

It has led to accusations of lies and deliberate misrepresentation and even claims that America is turning its back on its traditions. And now that President George Bush, a bornagain evangelical, has won a second term in office with the assistance of a large turnout by evangelicals at the polls, the dispute is likely to get even more heated.

At the eye of this storm is Dover, where a legal battle that could end up costing local taxpayers very dear has been launched.

"I was very surprised. I would not have thought it [would come to this]," said Steven Sough, one of 11 parents who last week filed a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to try to prevent the change to the curriculum, arguing it would breach the US Constitution. "I have a daughter, Ashley, who will be 14 in two-weeks time. This is a personal issue. I want her learning science at school. I want her learning religion at home with me or at church."

The dispute in Dover blew up in October when the elected members of the district school board voted 6-3 that the biology course for 15-year-olds should be amended to include a theory about the origins of life known as intelligent design or ID.

The proponents of ID claim life is so complex that its origins must in some way have been directed by a supernatural actor. The Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a leading proponent of ID theory, says "certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection".

In addition to ordering that pupils be taught about ID and "made aware in the gaps or problems in Darwin's theory", the board arranged for the donation to the school of 60 copies of a controversial biology book, Of Pandas and People. Copies of the text, which is critical of Darwin's "natural selection", were placed in the classrooms for pupils to browse.

After a meeting of the board on 18 October, two members, Carol and Jeff Brown, resigned in protest. The Browns, both Christians, said they believed religion had no place in science. "This country was founded on the belief of freedom of religion and freedom from religion," said Mrs Brown, sitting at her kitchen table, knitting with a ball of electric-blue wool.

Her husband said he also had practical concerns. "It is going to get shot-down in court. We cannot afford it."

The lawsuit filed last week by the ACLU, accuses the school board of breaching the First Amendment of the US Constitution which prohibits the establishment of an official religion.

In its lawsuit it argued: "ID is a non-scientific argument or assertion, made in opposition to the scientific theory of evolution that an intelligent, supernatural actor has intervened in the history of life and that life 'owes its origin to a master intellect'." It also noted that in 1987 the US Supreme Court ruled that creationism was a religious belief that could not be taught alongside evolution.

The school board has insisted it is not trying to force religion into the classroom. Vice-president Heather Geesey said its aim was simply to make information about ID available. "All I want to do is have anything the kids [could] learn, there for them to learn. That is our job, to teach children everything we can. "I think [the row] has been [ the result of] a misconception. Most of the people I know are in favour of it, or else are once I explain it."

But what of intelligent design? Is it, as critics claim, simply creationsim-lite? Glenn Branch, vice-president of the National Centre for Science Education, which promotes Darwinism, said: "There is nothing wrong with the idea of a creator but teaching it as [a part of science] leads to detriment of both religion and science. There is a blurring of the two and it involves a lot of misrepresentation of science."

The Discovery Institute's Centre for Science and Culture counters that labelling creationism and ID together is simply an attempt by Darwinists to limit scientific debate. Rob Crowther, a spokesman for the group, said: "We advocate that schools teach more about evolution, not less. We think that the scientific challenges to Darwinian evolution should be discussed in the classroom, but that is much different from teaching any alternative theory."

And what about Of Pandas and People? Now more than 15 years old, the book is considered one of the seminal texts of ID. One of its co-authors, Dean Kenyon, a controversial academic, is a fellow of the right-leaning Discovery Institute.

But Professor Kenneth Miller of Brown University's biology department, who wrote a stinging critique of the text during an earlier creationism row in Kansas, said: "It's an awful book. It's filled with scientific mistakes and misrepresentations. It is also out of date."

It is clear from even a day in the quiet town of Dover that behind the rather academic argument about the strengths and weaknesses of Darwinism and about its alleged gaps, the debate that is taking place here, as elsewhere across the US, is really about two fundamentally different views of the world. One says that America has for too long been in retreat from its Christian traditions while the other argues that America's very traditions include a separation of church and state.

In Dover, for instance, while the proponents of ID insist they do not wish to put religion in the classroom, they readily admit their own fundamentalist beliefs. The move to change the curriculum was initiated by a school board member, William Buckingham, who at one public meeting declared: "Two thousand years ago, someone died on a cross. Can't someone take a stand for him?"

Mr Buckingham has declined to speak to reporters but his wife, Charlotte, who works at one of the town's evangelical churches, told The Independent: "All ID is saying is that the origin of life is so complex that it had to be created by a higher power. That is all it says. It gives the students a chance of going to think about that."

Asked whether she believed schools ought to be allowed to teach religion, she said: "There are many people who homeschool their children because they cannot get what want they want elsewhere, the truth about what we believe about our creator."

Rumours suggest that the 60 copies of Pandas were donated to the school by Irene and Don Bonsell, whose son is a board member. Mrs Bonsell, who described herself as a creationist, refused to confirm or deny whether they had donated the books. She said she approved of the books being available to the students even though she also denied religion was being placed in the classroom. "I think it's a good idea that students should learn this theory," she said. "I'm a creationist. I don't understand what the problem is [with ID]. It's another theory. Darwinism has never been proved, it's just a theory. They are trying to take God out of everything, out of the pledge, off our money."

Pandas also has evangelical links. The book is published by the Texas-based Foundation for Truth and Ethics, a small conservative think-tank which has published two other books, one promoting abstinence before marriage and another which disputes that America's founding principles came from Greek, Roman and Enlightenment traditions but rather from Christianity.

The foundation's president, John Buell, who formerly worked to promote Christianity on university campuses, said Pandas was not a religious book even though he conceded that ID implied a "supernatural power".

In Dover, the school board will meet lawyers this week to discuss its options and decide whether to go ahead with the changes to the curriculum and fight the lawsuit. The members' decision will be carefully scrutinised not just by the townsfolk of Dover but by school boards across the US which are considering similar measures.

In Grantsburg, Wisconsin, for instance, a school board has revised its curriculum to teach "various scientific models of theories of origin" though it has since argued that it will only be teaching students "about the controversy surrounding evolution" and not ID.

In Charles County, Maryland, the school board is considering a proposal to eliminate textbooks "biased toward evolution" from classrooms. Similar proposals have been considered this year in Missouri, Mississippi and Oklahoma. In Cobb County, Georgia, school textbooks have for the last two years contained a sticker which informs students: "Evolution is a theory, not a fact."

Indeed, if recent polls are accurate, the Dover school board members may not be lacking in support. A poll last month by Gallup suggested that 45 per cent of Americans believe that humans were created by God in their current form within the past 10,000 years.

It is less clear what the students in Dover think about the proposed changes. On a freezing afternoon last week, Melissa Owen, 16, and 18-year-old Alex Jones, were waiting for a lift home. They both believed that the teaching of ID should be allowed in classes that were elective rather than mandatory.

Melissa confirmed that all the students were talking about the controversy. "It was freezing today, there was no heat," she said. "People were joking that the school was saving money to pay for the lawsuit."

© 2004 the Independent LTD

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