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‘Back to School’ Also Means Return to Battles Over Intelligent Design

As fall approaches, along with back-to-school sales and tax-free holidays, expect more controversies about intelligent design, warns a Texas organization that monitors science teaching standards in public schools.

The Texas Freedom Network said Saturday it expects the Seattle-based Discovery Institute to push creationism under the guise of “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution in the State Board of Education’s review of science textbooks this year.

The grassroots organization of religious and community leaders and activists launched a multi-year campaign called Stand Up for Science calling on education officials to avoid attempts to undermine teaching about evolution and leave teaching about religious beliefs to families and congregations.

The campaign includes a clergy statement arguing that “religious convictions about the origin of life are sacred and should be cultivated and strengthened in homes and houses of worship” and that “efforts to insert religious beliefs into science classrooms misunderstand and demean both faith and science.”

According to a 63-page report on the Texas Freedom Network Web site, battles over teaching evolution and creationism have been going on for years. Two years ago pro-evolution forces gained control of the state education board in Ohio and regained control of the Kansas state board.

Now, the group says, that battle is coming to Texas, as a far-right faction of the State Board of Education born in the 1990s has grown to include seven of 15 members. That clout comes at a perilous time, as the board is in the midst of revising curriculum standards that guide the writing of textbooks for more than 4.5 million students in Texas public schools.

This year the board is set to tackle standards for biology and environmental science. The outcome could have impact beyond Texas’ borders. Texas and California are by far the largest public school systems, and publishers often create textbooks specifically for those states and then sell the same books or with minimal revisions in smaller states around the country.

Evolution opponents have faced legal setbacks since the U.S. Supreme court ruled in 1987 that teaching so-called “creation science” violated the First Amendment ban on establishing religion. Following other setbacks, the report says, the creationist strategy shifted over time to avoid terms like “creationism” and “creation science” and instead promote “intelligent design,” a claim that life forms are too complex to have evolved by chance. They carefully avoid calling this intelligent designer “God,” fearing that would expose the concept’s religious foundation.

After a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled in 2005 that intelligent design is a theological argument and not science, the creationist strategy evolved further. Recent efforts attempt to sow doubt among students by requiring that schools teach about “weaknesses” of evolution not widely accepted in the scientific community.

“Such attacks are alarming because evolution is the foundation for understanding all of the biological sciences, from genetics to animal behavior,” says the report. “Even so, an array of pressure groups flatly rejects, exclusively on religious grounds, the overwhelming scientific evidence for evolution.”

Those challenges come from both “Old Earth” creationists, which accept evolution but believe that God guides the process, and “Young Earth” creationists, who believe in a literal six-day creation as described in Genesis that occurred just a few thousand years ago. That view is illustrated in the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., where exhibits portray dinosaurs existing alongside humans.

The leading proponent of teaching intelligent design in public schools is The Discovery Institute, which in 1999 unveiled a “wedge strategy” to replace scientific materialism with theistic understandings that nature and people were created by God. The three-part strategy called for scientific research and writing, followed by publicity and opinion-making and finally “cultural confrontation and renewal” through conferences, legal action and research.

One of the Discovery Institute’s senior fellows is William Dembski, a research professor of philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.