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Evolution Debate in California (8/15/08)

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Recent Action

On August 15, 2008 U.S. District Court Judge James Ortero of Los Angeles ruled that the University of California (UC) can deny specific course credit to high school students applying from some Christian schools.  The lawsuit was filed in 2005 after the UC’s review board deemed some religious courses as unacceptable for satisfying admission requirements.  The August ruling claimed that the UC’s denial of credit was legal because the rejected courses ignored key science or history topics, presented the Bible as an unerring source, or failed to develop students’ critical thinking skills.  Ortero found no evidence of anti-religion bias in the UC’s actions, citing other courses and textbooks with religious viewpoints that have been approved such as “Chemistry for Christian Schools”. 

The UC system says their course rejection rate is the same for religious and secular schools and maintains that it is just a matter of universal standard to make sure students are prepared for college.  Thomas Buckley, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Jesuit School of Theology said, “Not getting credit for religious courses [is] a longstanding practice in higher education and it makes sense…You want all entering students to have a level playing field and to be treated equally.” Still, the Associations of Christian Schools International is claiming religious discrimination and trying to repeal the ruling in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

Previous Action

On June 27, 2006, Judge S. James Otero, of the U.S. District Court, Los Angeles, heard arguments in a lawsuit filed in the court last year that charges the University of California with discriminating against applicants from Christian secondary schools whose biology coursework was deemed by the UC system to be "inconsistent with the viewpoints and knowledge generally accepted in the scientific community." The lawsuit, Association of Christian Schools International et al. v. Roman Stearns et al., was originally filed on August 25, 2005 when six students from the Calvary Chapel Christian School in Murrieta, California, were denied college credit for biology courses based on textbooks published by Bob Jones University Press and A Beka Books. The plaintiffs charge that the UC system has violated the students' constitutional rights to free speech, freedom of religion and equal protection under the law. (06/06)

The Americans for the Separation of Church and State, on behalf of 11 parents, sued the school board, superintendent, and a teacher in the El Tejon School District in Lebec, California on January 4, 2006. Frazier Mountain high school offered an elective course about intelligent design that violates the separation of church and state clause of the constitution according to the lawsuit. The syllabus describes the course as follows:

“Philosophy of Intelligent Design: This 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 are the age of the earth, a world
wide 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 speakers, and
videos. The class grade will be based on a position paper in which
students will support or refute the theory of evolution.”

Parents objected to the original course in December, 2005 and Kenneth Hurst, a geologist and father of 2 students at the high school, wrote a critique of the original syllabus. The school board revised the syllabus (see above) and then approved the course on a vote of 3 to 2. On January 10, 2006 the school board agreed to drop the course and settle the lawsuit. Sharon Lemburg, a social studies teacher who started teaching the "Philosophy of Design," on January 4, defended the discontinued class in a letter to the weekly Mountain Enterprise. "I believe this is the class that the Lord wanted me to teach," she wrote. Hurst, who is a Quaker, along with the Reverend Barry Lynn, the Executive Director of The Americans for the Separation of Church and State, also objected to the course because as Hurst said in court documents "[the course] reflects a preference for fundamentalist Christianity over all other religious and scientific viewpoints." (02/06/06)

On June 1st, 2004, boardmembers of the Roseville Joint Union High School District near Sacramento, California, voted 3-2 against a policy that would mandate teaching the strengths and weaknesses of evolution in biology classes. The policy, called the "Quality Science Education Policy," was proposed by Larry Caldwell, a parent who believes alternatives to evolution should be taught in science classes to encourage critical thinking. Many parents shared his opinion and believe that their children's science education was incomplete because evolution was taught without presenting conflicting arguments, especially in the wake of increased debate about the validity of the theory of evolution. This particular debate began last summer when Caldwell questioned the approval of a new biology textbook that excluded criticisms of evolution. Since then, the school board has recieved a petition signed by 28 district science teachers, as well as a separate petition signed by 242 teachers from a variety of disciplines, all objecting to the new policy. The school board president, Dean Forman, and board member Kelly Lafferty, the only two members who voted in favor of the proposal, were accused, along with Caldwell, of being motivated by religion on this issue. According to superintendent Don Genasci, the year-long debate has cost the school district $46,000 in legal fees and hundreds of staff hours. The rejection of the proposal was met by a standing ovation and shouts of joy from many of the audience members. (7/2/04)

In 1981, the California Supreme Court heard the case Segraves v. California, in which the plaintiff argued that evolution should not be taught in the classroom because it infringed upon their free exercise of religion by being required to learn about evolution. The Court ruled that teaching evolution was not a violation of this right because it was done in a way that prevented the scientific facts. Although taking a different turn, the issue of evolution in schools resurfaced in July of 2003 when the Roseville Joint Union High School District approved a new biology textbook that presented Darwin's thoery of evolution but did not address contrary evidence. Many parents, lead by Larry Caldwell, asked the school board to consider adding supplemental materials that would teach different ideas on the origin of life. They explained that if some scientists are questioning the merits of the theory, schools should not present it as fact without fault. Opponents to this idea feared it would discredit the theory that is well established in the scientific community and rejected the idea as a plot to bring religion into the school system. At the May 4th, 2004 board meeting, over 200 people gathered to discuss whether or not schools should teach arguments against evolution.

Sources: Sacramento Bee, American Institute of Biological Sciences, Associated Press.

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

Contributed by Ashlee Dere, 2004 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern and Carrie Donnelly, AGI/AIPG 2006 Summer Intern.

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

Last updated on August 7, 2006.

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