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Teach Science as Science : A teacher's lawsuit revisits the Scopes trial

July 27, 1994

Science and religion have their rightful places in a democratic society, but there should be no confusion between the two. One of the best-known court battles of this century--the Scopes trial of the 1920s--saw religious fundamentalists try to discredit the scientific theory of evolution. Science educators had hoped that the incontrovertible value of teaching evolution theory, as developed in Charles Darwin's 1859 "The Origin of Species" and first aired in that trial, had been nailed down by several U.S. Supreme Court cases. No such luck.

This week, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, on technical grounds, returned to a lower court for hearing a lawsuit brought by a teacher, John Peloza, who insisted on his right to teach creationism to biology students in the Capistrano Valley Unified School District. Peloza said the district forced him to teach "the religion" of evolution.

HARD TO PROVE: In reinstating the lawsuit, however, the court said that while Peloza ought to have a chance to try to prove his point, it would be a hard one to prove. In fact, he is on slippery constitutional ground, as previous decisions that have explored the First Amendment's establishment clause demonstrate. The argument that evolution and creationism should be given equal status was rejected flatly in a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court case overruling a Louisiana statute that Justice William J. Brennan Jr. said "was (designed) clearly to advance the religious viewpoint."

DISTURBING CASE: Of course, groups pushing narrow religious agendas will always have their occasional successes with pliable legislatures. But the Peloza case is especially disturbing because it arises from within the very heart of a school system. Here is a public-school science teacher, now reassigned to teach health and physical education, who has rejected the premise of scientific method.

The theory of natural selection is not, after all, merely one wild-card idea among others competing for acceptance. It is not "just" a theory but a body of ideas that have been thoroughly confirmed, derived from solid techniques of scientific inquiry. That process should be held up as a model for learning. Young people need to know that the truths we derive about the physical universe must come from reason and scientific experimentation, not dogma.

Science cannot be regarded as one possible methodology for determining how things came to be, alongside whatever the Flat Earth Society, or anybody else, might postulate. At a time when religious zealots are conducting stealth campaigns to take over school boards, this challenge from someone on the front lines in the classroom should be resolved with a ringing affirmation from the courts. Educators have a right and a duty to teach science as science.

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