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Evolution foes see opening to press fight in schools

A long-running American cultural clash has flared yet again, with a trial in suburban Atlanta this month over teaching evolution in public schools. Several Georgia parents are challenging a local school board's decision to require biology textbooks to include a prominently placed label stating that evolution is ''not a fact."

The Georgia case is the first to land in court, but this year alone 13 states have had challenges to teaching evolution in schools. With the new federal No Child Left Behind education law mandating a broad review of science curriculum in every state over the next two years, those challenges may accelerate, as religious activists and evolution opponents seize on opportunities to shape guidelines on what public school students learn about the natural world.

Those challenging evolution rarely say that schools should teach creationism, the biblical account of the origin of life. Instead, they insist that teachers present evolution as a debated and uncertain hypothesis, though most scientists consider it among the most important and well-supported scientific theories of all time. Scientists worry that the antievolution campaign will weaken American science education and see it as part of a broader push to incorporate religion in public schools.

The debate is unfolding as the nation wrestles with the role of religion in public life, as the recent presidential election made clear.

The mobilization of religious conservatives that helped to reelect President Bush greatly impressed officials at the Institute for Creation Research, a self-proclaimed ''Christ-focused creation ministry" in Santee, Calif., committed to challenging the teaching of evolution in schools.

''When people get organized, those that approach politics from a point of view that God exists, it's clear that things can be changed," said the institute's vice president, Duane Gish. ''The evolutionists use every device available in politics. Why shouldn't we?"

Once disparate antievolution groups have become more organized in recent years, establishing networks on the Internet, sharing tactics, developing literature, and honing arguments.

''The case in Georgia is the first court case to take this up, but there will be more," said Paul R. Gross, life sciences professor emeritus at the University of Virginia and author of a recent book on the antievolution effort. ''This is a very serious movement. It touches the deep and sincere feelings of a great many people in our country."

While most of the challenges to the teaching of evolution have been in states won by Bush, the issue has also emerged in the last two months in three states won by John F. Kerry:

In western Wisconsin, the Grantsburg school district passed a measure mandating the teaching of ''various scientific models or theories of origin."

In Pennsylvania, the Dover area school board passed a measure requiring the teaching of ''intelligent design" along with evolution. This theory argues that life is so complex that some intelligent force, above and beyond evolution, must be behind it. Proponents say the intelligent force is God.

In Maryland, the Charles County school board debated a proposal to eliminate textbooks ''biased toward evolution" from classrooms. The measure is under consideration.

Last week, a federal courtroom in suburban Atlanta took center stage in the debate.

At issue was this label, pasted on the title page of the biology books of middle and high school students in Cobb County: ''This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered."

In 2002, school board members voted for the label after a petition drive by Marjorie Rogers, a lawyer and devout Christian, who said in trial testimony that she was motivated simply by reading her children's textbook: ''It presented it just blatantly. 'Evolution is a fact. It did happen.' I was outraged."

Six local parents challenged the decision, arguing that the disclaimer on evolution violates constitutional provisions separating church and state. In 1987, the US Supreme Court ruled that teaching creationism in public schools violated the church-state separation. The Georgia disclaimer does not mention creationism or Christianity, but simply questions evolution. Nonetheless, the parents challenging the evolution disclaimer argue that its intent is to inject a religious point of view into public education. US District Judge Clarence Cooper, appointed to the bench by Bill Clinton, must decide the matter, though it is unclear when he will rule.

Debate over evolution had been considered a relic of the past, captured in plays such as ''Inherit the Wind" about the 1925 trial of Tennessee teacher John T. Scopes, who was convicted of illegally teaching evolution. It took another 42 years before the Tennessee law was taken off the books. The issue largely faded from national attention until 1999, when the Kansas board of education voted to remove evolution from the state's science curriculum. New members have been elected to the board, and the policy has been reversed. But the debate is alive in more than a dozen states and at the national level.

In 2001, Senator Rick Santorum, Republican of Pennsylvania, unsuccessfully tried to insert language into the No Child Left Behind education bill that would require that ''a full range of views" on human origins be taught in classes.

Evolution, first popularized by Charles Darwin in 1859, holds that simple, single-cell organisms developed into more complex life forms, including humans, over millions of years through genetic changes that gave certain species characteristics that allowed them to thrive while others died. The theory is supported by extensive evidence from fossils, as well as studies of genetics. The vast majority of scientists accept it, with most considering the theory a towering achievement for its ability to explain the enormous variety of life with a few simple principles.

In many local battles, evolution opponents have successfully argued that students should be exposed to questions about evolution and alternative theories. In Ohio, the state Department of Education passed a measure in March encouraging teachers to hold classes that question the evolutionary theory.

''We were very pleased by the science standard that was developed" in Ohio, said John West, associate director of the Center for Science & Culture of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank active in opposing the teaching of evolution in schools around the country. He added, ''I certainly do see more of these policies being pursued" as the No Child Left Behind law prompts states to review their science curricula.

The law requires review of all subjects, and in most states the process is well underway in English and math. The reviews, conducted by state school boards, can lead to changes in curriculum, textbook selection, and standardized test content. School board officials are elected or appointed by elected officials and therefore subject to political pressure.

''When you do get organized, when you use political pressure, it is effective," said Gish of the Institute for Creation Research. He said he would like to see ''the schools present the best case for evolution, and let the creationists present their best case, and let students decide."

Evolutionary scientists have fought against such sentiment for decades.

''This is such old-hat stuff," said Harvard emeritus professor Ernest Mayr, who at age 100 is one of the titans of evolutionary science.

Mayr is adamant that antievolutionary arguments, even those that don't directly mention religion, have no place in public schools.

''What it really amounts to is a break with our Constitution, which tells you that you should keep religion out of public life," he said.

Another major figure in the field, Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson, said the current challenges to evolution are fringe movements, noting that Pope John Paul II, in a 1996 statement, acknowledged that evolutionary scientists had amassed considerable evidence for their theory.

''They are really going outside the beliefs of most Christians in the world and most other religions in the world," said Wilson of evolution opponents.

Raja Mishra can be reached at rmishra@globe.com. 

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