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Evolution Debate in Arizona (6/04/09)

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Recent Action

On May 6, 2009 the Arizona House of Representatives passed a bill designed to protect students from discrimination based on religious beliefs or expressions, in the teaching of earth science and biology classes at public schools. The bill states, “if an assignment requires a student’s viewpoint to be expressed in coursework, artwork or other written or oral assignments, a public education institution shall not penalize or reward a student on the basis of religious content or a religious viewpoint. In such an assignment, a student’s academic work that expresses a religious viewpoint shall be evaluated based on ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance to the course curriculum or requirements of the coursework or assignment.” The bill passed with the influence of the conservative non-profit organization Center for Arizona Policy. The bill has now moved on to the Arizona Senate for consideration.

Previous Action

A legislative panel in the state Senate advanced a House measure aimed at protecting religious liberties in the school. The focus of the legislation is to preserve a student’s right to wear religious clothing and symbols, but a section of the legislation states if an assignment requires a student's viewpoint to be expressed a public educational institution shall not penalize or reward a student on the basis of religious content. There is concern that this language will open the door for the discussion of creationism in the science classroom. (06/08)

A legislative panel in the Arizona House advanced a measure aimed at protecting religious liberties in the school and while most of the discussion has been around preserving students’ right to wear religious clothing and symbols a section of the legislation states “if an assignment requires a student's viewpoint to be expressed in coursework, artwork or other written or oral assignments, A public educational institution shall not penalize or reward a student on the basis of religious content or a religious viewpoint.” This language may open the door for the discussion of creationism in the science classroom and cause confusion about science. (03/08)

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According to an October 15th article in the Washington Post, the controversial book Grand Canyon: A Different View, Tom Vail's biblical explanation for the formation of the Grand Canyon, has been moved from the natural science section to the inspirational section in the Grand Canyon National Park bookstore. This complies with a letter signed by the presidents of AGI and six of its member societies (American Geophysical Union, Association of American State Geologists, Geological Society of America, National Association of Geoscience Teachers, Paleontological Society, Society for Vertebrate Paleontology) sent to the National Park Service last December, which states, "The Grand Canyon: A Different View is not about science and we strongly urge that, if it remains available in Grand Canyon bookstores, it be clearly separated from books and materials that do discuss our scientific understanding of Grand Canyon geology. As you know, the Grand Canyon provides a remarkable and unique opportunity to educate the public about Earth science. In fairness to the millions of park visitors, we must clearly distinguish religious tenets from scientific knowledge."

Others are taking a more hardline stance on the book. According to an October 12th press release by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the National Park Service broke their promise to undertake a review of Tom Vail's creationist book Grand Canyon: A Different View, now being sold at the Grand Canyon bookstore. When critics tried to have the book pulled from the store in August of 2003, NPS chief of communications David Barna told reporters that there would be a high-level policy review to support a final decision in February 2004. According to NPS spokeswoman Elaine Sevy, the review has yet to take place because lawyers at the Interior and Justice departments have been struggling with the issue with regards to the separation of church and state. In January, David Shaver, the chief of the Geologic Resources Division of the NPS, issued a memo recommending that the book be pulled because it, "purports to be science when it is not and its sale in the park book store directly conflicts with the Service's statutory mandate to promote the use of sound science in all its programs, including public education." Yet, according to Sevy, "Now that the book has become quite popular, we don't want to remove it.". (10/18/04)

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On January 7th, CNN.com published an article about the recent debate over the book Grand Canyon: A Different View written by former river guide Tom Vail, which is currently being sold in Grand Canyon National Park. CNN quotes Jeff Ruch, the director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) as saying, "The overall concern is that the top managers of the park service are implementing a conservative agenda that is at odds with their duties as custodians of the nation's heritage". CNN also reported that NPS headquarters is preparing to draft a letter telling Grand Canyon administrators that the book makes claims that fall outside accepted science, so it likely won't be restocked. However, in an article published in the Washington Post on January 20th, it was reported that the park ordered dozens more books last week. According to the Washington Post article, Vail admits that "None of it is science" but argues that his theories are just as valid as that of the scientific community.

On December 16th, the presidents of AGI and six of its member societies (American Geophysical Union, Association of American State Geologists, Geological Society of America, National Association of Geoscience Teachers, Paleontological Society, Society for Vertebrate Paleontology) sent a letter to the superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park expressing concern that a young-Earth creationist book -- Grand Canyon: A Different View -- was being sold at park bookstores as a source of scientific information about the canyon's history. The letter from the society presidents is available as an Acrobat PDF file. A similar letter was sent by the American Institute of Biological Sciences. (1/20/04)

Former Colorado River guide, Tom Vail, wrote a book last year entitled Grand Canyon: A Different View that offers a bible-based view of the canyon's formation. Last August, the non-profit bookstore within Grand Canyon National Park began to stock this book. Given that each book in the bookstore is approved by a board of park employees, stocking Tom Vail's book indicates the National Park Service (NPS) has endorsed this book. After a controversy began over the scientific nature of its content, the book was moved to the "inspirational" section of the bookstore. A copy of it has also been sent to the NPS headquarters in Washington, DC and park officials are waiting for a decision as to whether they should continue to sell the book.

The book espouses a young Earth creationist viewpoint. With beautiful pictures of the Grand Canyon and 23 coauthors, the book at first glance seems like credible science. But instead of the scientific story of the Grand Canyon, the book tells a story of the canyon being formed in a few days during Noah's flood. A review of the book by the American Geophysical Union states that "This perspective is strict bible literalism". One example of the lack of scientific evidence is when Vail asserts in the book that the canyon would have been formed over a few days while the layers of rock were still soft. Given that the walls of the canyon are 1600 meters high, how could weak, plastic muds stand in such enormous cliffs while being catastrophically eroded? Click here for a review of the book by geologist Wilfred Elders.

As a unique geological wonder, the Grand Canyon represents an unparalleled opportunity to educate our nation's citizens about earth science, but the opportunity is compromised by the National Park Service's apparent endorsement of this religious text as science.

Sources: American Geophysical Union, CNN.com, National Center for Science Education, Washington Post.

Previous Action section includes material from AGI's Update on State Challenges to the Teaching of Evolution for the 106th Congress.

Contributed by Corina Cerovski Darriau, Government Affairs Staff; 2004 AGI/AAPG Spring Semester Intern Gayle Levy.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated on June 04, 2009