From a legal perspective, the Religious Right’s attempts to undermine teaching evolution in public schools haven’t fared too well. Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court invalidated an Arkansas law that made it illegal to teach evolution in that state's public schools. In 1987, the high court struck down a Louisiana statute that required public schools to offer “balanced treatment” between evolution and creationism. In a 2005 case sponsored in part by Americans United, a federal court in Pennsylvania removed “intelligent design” from public schools in the town of Dover.
So things are going well in the court of law. In the court of public opinion, it’s a different story. Evolution-denying fundamentalists have made such a fuss in some parts of the country that instruction about evolution is watered down or not offered at all.
Ann Reid, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a longtime ally of Americans United that works to defend sound science education in public schools, put the spotlight on this problem in a recent Los Angeles Times column.
Reid noted that public battles over the teaching of evolution in science classes erupt every year, pointing to a recent flap in Arizona as an example. There, Diane Douglas, superintendent of public instruction, promoted teaching intelligent design and went so far as to appoint a creationist to a state board charged with rewriting science standards.
The good news is that Douglas is on the way out, and other state officials made it clear that evolution should remain in the standards. A solid victory, right? Maybe. While state standards may call for teaching evolution, what happens in local schools can vary. Public pressure often makes some teachers skittish.
Observed Reid, “With evolution still a matter of political controversy, it’s understandable that a teacher who wants to cover evolution forthrightly might feel some trepidation, or a teacher who is inclined to skip the topic might feel justified. Indeed, about 60% of the surveyed teachers reported downplaying evolution, covering it incompletely or ignoring it altogether.”
Creationists might make a lot of noise, but as Reid noted in her column, “No credible scientist doubts that evolution is the theoretical and practical core of biology, with more evidence emerging from a rich array of research fields with every passing year.”
When we fail to teach evolution to our young people in biology class, we leave them ill-prepared for the type of instruction they’ll get in college. Secular universities teach evolution upfront and without apology. Students who weren’t exposed to it in high school or who were given just a cursory treatment will be at a disadvantage.
Those students may even be denied the spark of interest that can propel a young person to pursue a certain field of study. Most of us can recall a teacher who really got us interested in a specific subject, maybe even inspired lifelong learning or a career in that field. Now imagine if the instruction in that topic had been lackluster or non-existent. How many potential scientists did we lose because they didn’t get proper instruction about evolution in high school?
Americans United will always oppose creationism because it is fundamentalist religion trying to pass itself off as science. It has no place in our public schools. Teaching creationism in public schools violates the separation of church and state, and that's reason enough to stop it. But it’s important to remember that the failure to teach youngsters sound science can cause significant collateral damage.
America’s young people deserve sound science education. Creationists want to block it because it offends their narrow interpretation of the Bible. Our challenge is to stop them in the court of law and the court of public opinion.