Burlington: District Upholds Evolution

News Release: 
Sunday, December 31, 2000

Unlike many recent years, the ACLU did not face efforts to have public schools sponsor prayer in Washington. Credit Supreme Court rulings in ACLU cases and our successful 1991 lawsuit against graduation prayer in Yelm, which led to a state Attorney General Office opinion that government-sponsored prayer is unconstitutional. The past year brought another success that hearkens back to the ACLU's earliest days.

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 said clearly that religious doctrines cannot be taught as science, advocates of creationism have sought new ways to inject their faith-based teachings into public school science curricula. A current tactic is to assert that creationism is an "alternative scientific theory" that must be taught as balance to evolution. In pushing to have their religious beliefs taught in science classrooms, creationists promote the notion that evolution, rather than being the cornerstone of modern biology, is just another unproven idea. This approach leaves students with a misunderstanding about the nature of scientific theories, which are explanations of natural phenomena based on rigorous research and analysis.

Furthermore, it impermissibly puts religious instruction in public schools. The Washington State Constitution states unequivocally that, "All schools maintained or supported wholly or in part by the public funds shall be forever free from sectarian control or influence."

For several years the ACLU has worked with parents to keep creationist teachings out of the science classroom in Burlington-Edison High School. A biology teacher there has used materials from Of Pandas and People, a book that promotes the religiously based idea that natural phenomena were created by an "intelligent designer." Responding to advocacy by the ACLU and concerned parents, the school board in 1998 backed a decision by the superintendent that the science teacher could no longer teach creationism in the guise of "intelligent design theory" in biology lessons. Since then, the teacher has submitted other excerpts from creationist writings for classroom use.

To counter the creationist effort, people in the district formed the Committee for Science Education. Last November it garnered 350 signatures for an ad in the Skagit Valley Herald opposed to teaching "religious doctrine masquerading as science" in public school. In May, 2000 school district officials rebuffed the teacher's latest ploy by refusing to approve materials he proposed to supplement a unit on evolution. Echoing concerns of the ACLU and the local citizens group, the district rejected the articles because they were not peer reviewed or widely accepted by the scientific community and would serve to confuse rather than educate students.