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School board ends fight for `evolution is theory' stickers

December 20, 2006|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — A suburban school board has abandoned its four-year legal fight to place stickers in high school biology textbooks that say "evolution is a theory, not a fact."

In a settlement announced Tuesday in federal court, the Cobb County Board of Education agreed never to use any similar "stickers, labels, stamps, inscriptions or other warnings," or to undermine the teaching of evolution in science classes.

In turn, the parents who sued over the stickers -- charging that they promoted religion in science classrooms and violated the separation of church and state -- agreed to end all legal action.

"The parents brought the suit because they wanted their children to have proper instruction in science," said Debbie Seagraves, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. "It's pretty clear the parents in Cobb County got what they wanted."

Evolution has long been controversial in Cobb County, north of Atlanta, where some biology teachers used to tear pages out of textbooks to avoid discussing it. In 2002, after more than 2,000 parents objected to sections on evolution in a new biology textbook, stickers were placed on the inside of the front cover.

Board members said they attempted to craft a sensitive response to parents' complaints. The sticker read: "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."

A group of Cobb County parents, backed by the ACLU, promptly sued the school district. In 2005, U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper ruled that the stickers equaled an endorsement of "Christian fundamentalist or creationist beliefs" and therefore were unconstitutional.

School officials removed the stickers from almost 35,000 textbooks, but asked the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse Cooper's decision. A federal appeals court sent the case back to the lower court this year, saying it did not have enough information.

"We faced the distraction and expense of starting all over with more legal actions and another trial," Teresa Plenge, chairwoman of the Cobb County Board of Education, said in a prepared statement.

Linwood Gunn, attorney for the school board, said the settlement was simply a practical matter: "This is really an effort by the school district to buy peace, not an admission that the sticker was unconstitutional."

The district has agreed to pay $166,659 to the plaintiffs, about a third of their legal fees.

The case was one of several recent battles over the teaching of evolution. In 2005, a federal judge barred the school board of Dover, Pa., from teaching "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution. In 2004, Georgia school Supt. Kathy Cox removed the word "evolution" from the state curriculum, in favor of "changes over time," but reversed her decision a week later after teachers and scientists protested.

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jenny.jarvie@latimes.com

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