California resident Kenneth Hurst was shocked when his children brought home a document de\xadscribing some new course offerings at Frazier Mountain High School in Lebec.
Among the listings was a course called “Philosophy of Intelligent De\xadsign.” Its description read: “The class will take a close look at evolution as a theory and will discuss the scientific, biological, and Biblical aspects that suggest why Darwin’s philosophy is not rock solid. This class will discuss Intelligent Design as an alternative response to evolution.
“Topics that will be covered,” the course description continued, “are the age of the earth, a worldwide flood, dinosaurs, pre-human fossils, dating methods, DNA, radioisotopes, and geological evidence. Physical and chemical evidence will be presented suggesting the earth is thousands of years old, not billions. The class will include lecture discussions, guest speaker, and videos. The class grade will be based on a position paper in which students will support or refute the theory of evolution.”
Hurst, who holds a doctorate in geology and works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, could see right away that this course had little to do with philosophy and a lot to do with promoting creationism. Backed by Americans United, he and other Kern County parents went to court to stop the school from teaching religion &8#151; and won when the school’s board of trustees voted to end the class and agree never to offer it again.
The new case, coming less than a month after Americans United’s victory over “intelligent design” in Dover, Pa., proves that the fight over creationism in public schools is far from dead. If anything, creationist advocates are still on the march and continue targeting local school boards.
In Lebec, the course was the brainchild of Sharon Lemburg, coach of the school’s girls’ soccer team and wife of an Assemblies of God pastor. Lemburg, who does not have a degree in any area of science, is clearly sympathetic to creationism. Her course syllabus listed questions about intelligent design that AU says reflect a creationist bias. Among them were, “Why is this a movement and why is it gaining momentum?” and “Why is it so threatening to society, the educational system, and evolutionists?”
Lemburg also proposed showing 24 videos to the students. According to AU’s legal complaint, 23 were “produced or distributed by religious organizations and assume a pro-creationist, anti-evolution stance,” including several by the Institute for Creation Research, a Cali\xadfor\xadnia-based religious ministry that attacks evolution, and Answers in Genesis, a similar group based in Kentucky.
As word began to spread about the class, the El Tejon school board hastily convened a special meeting on New Year’s Day, with less than 24 hours notice to the public. At the meeting, the board voted 3-2 to approve the course with a “revised syllabus.”
The revisions, AU asserted, did not improve the course. Several young-earth creationist videos were replaced with DVDs advocating intelligent design. In addition, course material propping up two longtime creationist canards &8#151; that evolution violates the third law of thermodynamics and that the fossil record backs creationism &8#151; were eliminated. But the overall effect of the course, AU maintained, was still to promote religion.
Americans United sought to resolve the matter without litigation. On Jan. 4, Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan wrote to officials in the El Tejon Unified District, asking them to cancel the class.
Citing a line of federal court cases striking down creationism in public schools, Khan wrote, “Simply put, these decisions bar public schools from seeking to debunk evolution for religious ends or from teaching (or giving ‘equal time’ to) religious theories on the origins of life. Frazier Mountain’s ‘Philosophy of Design’ course does both. It is clear, and we believe the evidence would show, that Ms. Lemburg’s purpose in teaching the course is to undermine evolution and to promote a religious perspective in its stead. It is equally clear that a reasonable observer would understand this to be the effect of the course.”
The course was being offered during a special “intersession” period scheduled to last just four weeks. At Frazier Mountain High, courses offered during this time are geared toward students who need remedial help. Those who don’t need remedial work take electives. Given the short time frame, Khan requested an immediate response from school officials.
Two days later, Superintendent John W. Wight wrote back, saying he would not cancel the course. Wight asserted that Khan “may have been misinformed” about the nature of the course.
“We do not understand your demand that the course be cancelled,” Wight wrote. “After reading your letter, our legal advisors have pointed out that they are unaware of any court or California statute which has forbidden public schools to explore cultural phenomenon, including history, religion or creation myths.”
AU contends exploring “cultural phenomenon” is the last thing Lemburg wants to do. Her class was clearly tilted toward the creationist point of view, and she planned to bring several creationist speakers into the classroom. She apparently made no serious effort to line up evolutionists.
Lemburg originally indicated that she would ask James Selgrath, one of two science teachers at the high school, to address the class. But Selgrath told the Frazier Park Mountain Enterprise, “I have no plans to do that.”
Selgrath added that he does not support teaching creationism at the school, remarking, “I have a Ph.D. in reproductive biology with a specialty in genetic engineering. I was on the faculty at Tufts Uni\xadversity for seven years. I am a scientist.”
Selgrath later joined Tim Garcia and Jim Atkinson, math and science teachers in the district, at a board meeting to lodge a protest.
Lemburg’s syllabus also listed “Francis Krich” as a speaker. She later conceded this was a misspelling of Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize-winning biologist who, along with James Watson, discovered the double helix structure of DNA. A native of England, Crick did live and teach in Southern California for a while, but he won’t be traveling to Kern County to address the class. He died in July of 2004.
Unable to persuade the board to drop the course, Americans United filed a lawsuit Jan. 10 and asked a federal court in California to issue a temporary restraining order to block continuation of the class.
To help make the case, AU submitted a 24-page affidavit from Dr. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Berkeley, Calif. Scott, a physical anthropologist and author of the recent book Evolution vs. Cre\xadationism: An Introduction, asserted, “It is my expert opinion that Mrs. Lemburg’s class purports to ‘teach the controversy’ in a balanced way, but that it actually reflects a decided pro-creationism, antievolution stance. It does so in two principal ways: First, it treats creationism and evolution as equal ‘philosophies,’ thereby undermining the credibility of evolutionary theory; second, as between the two, it plainly favors the creationist perspective.”
AU acted on behalf of 11 parents, among them Hurst, who has children in the 10th and 12th grades in the El Tejon district. In court papers filed by AU, Hurst said the course “conflicts with my beliefs as a scientist. I believe this class undermines the sound scientific principles taught in Frazier Mountain High School’s biology curriculum and is structured in a way that deprives my children of the opportunity to be presented with an objective education that would aid the development of their critical thinking skills.”
Hurst, a Quaker, added that the class also offends his religious views, asserting it “reflects a preference for fundamentalist Christianity over all other religious and scientific viewpoints.”
The El Tejon district, located in a rural area nestled in the mountains about 65 miles north of Los Angeles, serves fewer than 1,500 students. When Hurst learned of the course, he talked with Lemburg directly to discuss his concerns. Hurst walked away from the conversation confident that she wanted to teach creationism.
“During their conversation, Mrs. Lemburg repeatedly referred to ‘intelligent design’ as ‘creationism,’” read AU’s court documents. “She also informed Dr. Hurst that the original title of the course had been ‘Creationism vs. Evolution.’ Furthermore, although the proposed syllabus stated that the course would cover complicated scientific topics, such as the laws of thermodynamics and the fossil record and dating methods, Dr. Hurst concluded from the conversation that Mrs. Lemburg had no knowledge of these or other scientific subjects. By the end of the conversation, it was clear to Dr. Hurst that Mrs. Lemburg planned to use the class to advocate against evolution and in favor of the religious beliefs of intelligent design and creationism.”
Lemburg seems to acknowledge having religious motivations.
“I believe this is the class that the Lord wanted me to teach,” she wrote in a letter to the editor of the Mountain Enterprise.
The controversy divided the mountain community, a normally sleepy place that the Times described as “63 miles north of Los Angeles and a time warp away in ambience.” Letters to the editor have poured into the Mountain Enterprise, and locals didn’t hesitate to opine on the matter to visiting reporters.
Pastor Scott Irwin of the Lebec Community Church sided with the board.
“Attention is good,” Irwin, who opposes evolution, told the Times. “I think Lebec is taking a big step for what is true.”
But not far away, Abbe Gore, who provides internet services to the community, criticized the board for acting in haste.
“What surprises me is that the local school board decided to go ahead with this class knowing full well it would be controversial,” Gore said. “It’s an unfortunate way to put Frazier Park on the map.”
TV preacher Pat Robertson also felt compelled to weigh in. Addressing his “700 Club” audience Jan. 17, Robertson insisted “There are inexplicable gaps in the so-called evolutionary theory” and remarked, “It just seems like to me for people to say a court &8#151; a judge &8#151; to say that you cannot enter into this area of inquiry because Barry Lynn and that bunch of atheists say you can’t do it, I just think there’s something terribly wrong about this.”
Although often reported in the media as a battle over intelligent design, the Lebec fight really centers more on traditional creationism. Lemburg’s syllabus contains several references to intelligent design, but most of the material she planned to use promoted young-earth creationism.
Lemburg’s approach made the Dis\xadcovery Institute, a Seattle-based pro-ID think tank, very nervous. On Jan. 11, Casey Luskin, an attorney with the Institute, wrote to Wight and requested clarification.
“Under the current formulation, the course title ‘Philosophy of design’ misrepresents intelligent design by promoting young earth creationism under the guise of intelligent design,” Luskin wrote. “We respectfully request that you either reformulate the course by removing the young earth creationist materials or retitle the course as a course not focused on intelligent design. Otherwise, this course could be damaging to scientists and other scholars investigating intelligent design as a genuinely scientific alternative to Darwinism because the course conflates intelligent design with Biblical creationist religious views about creation.”
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said from a legal perspective, the Discovery Institute’s claims are irrelevant and just another example of that group’s attempts to portray ID as science, not religion. Although ID jettisons some of the more overtly religious claims of traditional creationism, the concept remains a faith-based one, Lynn said. ID proponents, he asserted, have no plausible candidate for the “designer” other than God.
Days before the hearing in federal court, AU attorneys made one more effort to resolve the matter by appealing directly to the school board.
Harry Schwartzbart, president of the San Fernando Valley Chapter of Ameri\xadcans United, attended a Jan. 13 meeting of the El Tejon Board, accompanied by two dozen local church-state separation advocates. Among them was the Rev. Skip Lindeman, Pastor of the UCC Church of the Lighted Window in La Can\xad\xada\xadda. Both Schwartzbart and Linde\xadman read statements to the board, urging them to settle the lawsuit and drop the course. This time, the board was more open to compromise. Attorneys with Americans United, assisted by lawyers with the Los Angeles office of the national firm of Arnold & Porter, spent the weekend of Jan. 14-15 negotiating with the board. An out-of-court settlement in the Hurst v. Newman case was an\xadnounced Jan. 17.
Under the terms of the settlement, the course terminated one week early. The dis\xadtrict’s board of trustees has also agreed to language stating, “No school over which the School District has authority, including the High School, shall offer, pre\xadsently or in the future, the course entitled ‘Philosophy of Design’ or ‘Philoso\xadphy of Intelligent Design’ or any other course that promotes or endorses creationism, creation science, or intelligent de\xadsign.”
Khan said the board made the right move.
“This course was far from intelligently designed,” Khan said “It was an infomercial for creationism and its offshoot, intelligent design. The class would never have survived a court challenge, and the board of trustees made the right call by pulling the plug on it.”
AU executive director Lynn agreed. Lynn congratulated the El Tejon board for avoiding costly and time-consuming litiga\xadtion, unlike the school board in Dover, Pa.
“We are delighted with the board’s decision to discontinue the ‘Philosophy of Design’ course and never offer it again,” said Lynn. “Public schools have no business promoting religion. I hope that other public schools learn from this incident and reject efforts to bring religious doctrines into classrooms.