February 2012 Church & State | Featured

To scientists, evolution is one of the most important and foundational ideas of modern biology.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, “Evolution is supported by abundant evidence from many different fields of scientific investigation. It underlies the modern biological sciences, including the biomedical sciences, and has applications in many other scientific and engineering disciplines.”

To New Hampshire State Rep. Jerry Bergevin, however, evolution is something else.

“It’s a worldview and it’s godless,” said the first-term Republican from Manchester. “Atheism has been tried in various societies, and they’ve been pretty criminal domestically and internationally. The Soviet Union, Cuba, the Nazis, China today: they don’t respect human rights…. [W]e should be concerned with criminal ideas like this and how we are teaching it.... Columbine, remember that? They were believers in evolution. That’s evidence right there.”

Bergevin’s solution: H.B. 1148, a bill that would order the state board of education to “[r]equire evolution to be taught in the public schools of this state as a theory, including the theorists’ political and ideological viewpoints and their position on the concept of atheism.”

While Bergevin’s views and his proposed legislation may sound outrageous, they are just one front in what seems to be an escalating battle over creationism in the public schools. From the Northeast to the Midwest, multiple anti-evolution gambits have been popping up around the country – and that was just in the first few days of 2012.

In Indiana, for example, state Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn) has introduced S.B. 89, a measure that would allow public schools in the state to “require the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science, within the school corporation.”

Kruse has been on this bent for a number of years, and this is not the first time he has introduced a version of this bill. He also did so in 1999, 2000 and 2001 thanks to a pledge he made to remove evolution from the state’s science standards.

In the past, his legislation didn’t get beyond the committee stage, but Republicans now control the state Senate, and Kruse is chairman of the Senate Education Committee. This gives him much more power to move his legislation forward.

Advocates of sound science education say the problem with the bill is pretty obvious to everyone but Kruse: It is patently unconstitutional.

Josh Rosenau, programs and policy director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), told Church & State that Kruse’s bill would run afoul of Edwards v. Aguillard, a 1987 Supreme Court decision that struck down a Louisiana law requiring “balanced treatment” between “creation science” and evolution.

Edwards v. Aguillard made it pretty clear you can’t teach creation science alongside evolution,” Rosenau said. “If this bill is passed, expect to see a challenge.”

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, Bergevin and two of his legislative colleagues are working on two separate bills there.

Bergevin’s rhetoric is particularly shrill. He believes his bill is for the good of society because teaching evolution leads to Nazism and school shootings.

“I want the full portrait of evolution and the people who came up with the ideas to be presented,” he said. Nonetheless, he maintains that he “is not anti-evolution,” but instead he is “anti-indoctrination,” according to columnist David Brooks of the Nashua (N.H.) Telegraph.

A separate New Hampshire bill, H.B. 1457, introduced by Reps. Gary Hopper (R-Weare) and John Burt (R-Goffstown), would mandate that the state board of education “[r]equire science teachers to instruct pupils that proper scientific inquire [sic] results from not committing to any one theory or hypothesis, no matter how firmly it appears to be established, and that scientific and technological innovations based on new evidence can challenge accepted scientific theories or modes.”

Hopper is dismissive of evolution, according to Brooks, because “Darwin’s theory is basically antiquated” since it fails to explain how life began. It concludes, according to Hopper, “that we’re all a bunch of accidents…. You really have no purpose for existence.”

Creationism, Hopper argued, should be taught because it argues that life is so complex it must have been created by an unknown, omnipotent entity or entities.

Hopper even went so far as to slam science in all forms.

“[Science class] is like having a creative writing class where the students are told what to create,” Hopper said, according to the Concord Monitor. “Science is a creative process, not an absolute thing. I want the problems with the current theories to be presented so that kids understand that science doesn’t really have all the answers. They are just guessing.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is closely monitoring these bills and will fight them, says AU State Legislative Counsel Amanda Rolat.

“Americans United is committed to protecting students’ and parents’ rights to have sound science, rather than religious belief, taught in public school science classrooms,” Rolat said. “The result of these bills will inevitably be litigation, because they attempt to skirt the U.S. Constitution and invite discussion of religious beliefs in the science classroom.”

Rolat said it is important to oppose these bills because they represent significant threats to church-state separation.

“New Hampshire and Indiana’s bills are more attempts to introduce religion into our public schools, posing serious threats to religious liberty,” she said.

NCSE’s Rosenau said he isn’t sure what will be the fate of the creationism bills we’ve seen so far this year, but speculated that the increase in anti-evolution legislation since 2010 can be blamed in part on the rise of the Tea Party.

“The 2010 elections brought in a lot of Tea Party people and lots of them were new to government,” Rosenau said. “These people don’t necessarily know what’s in the Constitution even though they swore to uphold it, so this has resulted in some fairly naively written bills.”

Some battles over evolution are taking place in venues outside the legislatures. In Kentucky, a local school superintendent is fighting a one-man crusade to keep the state from teaching evolution in public schools.

A new standardized biology test scheduled to be administered to Kentucky students starting in the spring of 2012 requires teachers to devote significant time to teaching evolution.

Hart County Schools Superintendent Ricky D. Line is not on board with that plan. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, Line recently wrote to the Kentucky Board of Education and Education Commissioner Terry Holliday about the impending test.

“I have a deep concern about the increased emphasis on the evolution content required,” Line observed. “I have a very difficult time believing that we have come to a point...that we are teaching evolution...as a factual occurrence, while totally omitting the creation story by a God who is bigger than all of us.”

To make matters worse, Holliday made remarks intended to assuage Line, suggesting that Kentucky has come up with some sort of compromise that allows teachers to present both evolution and creationism.

The Herald-Leader reports that Holliday insisted that Kentucky does not intend to present evolution as fact. Teachers, he suggested, are allowed to discuss alternatives to evolution, such as creationism.

Civil liberties experts say Holliday’s approach clearly transgresses the Constitution and Supreme Court rulings. And scientists say evolution is a theory so well settled that it ought to be treated as fact. They note that it’s also a “theory” that the Earth revolves around the sun.

According to the National Academy of Sciences: “No new evidence will demonstrate that the Earth does not orbit around the sun (heliocentric theory), or that living things are not made of cells (cell theory). Like these other foundational scientific theories, the theory of evolution is supported by so many observations and confirming experiments that scientists are confident that the basic components of the theory will not be overturned by new evidence.”

No one in the scientific community seriously questions the validity of evolution just as no one is clinging to the idea that the sun revolves around the Earth.

Americans United and its allies plan to closely monitor the burgeoning creationism crusade and oppose any legislative or governmental moves to introduce religion into the science classroom.