ATLANTA — A federal judge Thursday ordered school officials in an Atlanta suburb to remove stickers they had placed in biology textbooks stating that "evolution is a theory, not a fact" that should be "approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered."
In a 44-page decision, U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper concluded that the stickers, although worded to avoid religious reference, amounted to an endorsement of "Christian fundamentalist or creationist" beliefs.
"The sticker communicates to those who oppose evolution for religious reasons that they are favored members of the political community, while the sticker sends a message to those who believe in evolution that they are political outsiders," he wrote.
The Cobb County school board adopted the stickers in March 2002 after parents protested sections on evolution in a new biology textbook. In a four-day trial late last year, board members said they had struggled to find a sensitive, tolerant response to objections from more than 2,000 parents.
In his decision, Cooper acknowledged that the school board had taken pains to remain neutral on religion while allowing for parents' beliefs. But the sticker had a different effect on schoolchildren, who "are likely to view the message on the sticker as a union of church and state," in violation of the 1st Amendment, he wrote.
"It's a terrific victory. I'm elated," said attorney Michael Manely, who along with the American Civil Liberties Union represented five parents who had sued the school board. He praised the parents for having "the courage to see this through."
Thursday's ruling comes amid a resurgent debate over a topic that has gripped Americans since the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial," in which science teacher John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution.
A school board in Dover, Pa., last fall required that science teachers include discussion of "intelligent design" -- which holds that the world could not have evolved through random chance. School boards in Ohio and Wisconsin also have encouraged teaching opposing points of view.
A year ago, Georgia school Supt. Kathy Cox removed the word "evolution" from the state teaching standards, calling it a "buzzword that causes a lot of negative reaction." Cox reversed her decision a week later after a chorus of protest from scientists and teachers.
Cobb County authorities expressed disappointment with Thursday's ruling and said in a statement that the school board would consider an appeal. The textbook stickers, they said, were "a reasonable and evenhanded guide to science instruction and encouraging students to be critical thinkers."
Cooper's words will come as chilling to a range of people questioning evolution, said John G. West, senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which has pressed for science curricula to incorporate challenges to evolution. The judge found that the school board intended to "foster critical thinking" by adopting the sticker -- a secular purpose. Still, West said, Cooper deemed it unconstitutional because others might have a perception that the sticker promoted religion, a precedent West called bizarre and troubling.
"That sticker itself is so unbelievably innocuous," said Brian Fahling, senior trial attorney for the American Family Assn., a Christian group that organizes against gay rights, pornography, gambling and abortion. "To sniff out impermissible effects, to me, is absolutely histrionic."
During the trial, Cooper closely examined the disclaimer, which reads in its entirety: "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered."
Teachers in Cobb County used to tear out the pages of textbooks that addressed Charles Darwin's theory, which a decades-old school board policy called "inconsistent with family teachings of a significant number of Cobb County citizens." The arrival of new textbooks in 2001 delighted many science teachers, but was followed by a chorus of protest and publicity.
Laura F. Searcy, a school board member, testified that she regarded the sticker as a warning to families whose religious beliefs might be challenged by the text, similar to an informed consent. But the book's coauthor, Kenneth Miller, a Brown University biology professor, argued that the sticker used the word "theory" in a colloquial way, as a "guess, or a hunch." In science, Miller argued, the word "theory" indicates an overarching explanation.
Miller said Thursday that Cooper made "the constitutionally correct decision."
"I think the judge saw very clearly that the intent of the wording of the warning sticker was to tell students that the information about evolution is inherently unreliable," he said.
Jeffrey Selman, 58, a computer programmer who originally brought the suit out of concern for his elementary school-age son, said he was numb from three years of campaigning against the sticker.
During that period, even sympathetic neighbors shrank from allying themselves with him publicly, he said. Selman said he hoped the ruling would abolish similar stickers in other states.
"Most of my growing up was in the '60s," a time of expanding freedom, he said. "I'm not going to allow my child's freedom to shrink in the future. Ain't no way."
Cooper ordered that the stickers be removed immediately and forbade school authorities from distributing them in any form.
Manely said that a part of him wished schoolchildren would rip the stickers off themselves on Thursday.
"What an interesting moment that would be," Manely said. "What a wonderful lesson that would be."