Keeping God Out of Science Class in an Obama Administration

Few people have a better grasp of the tenaciousness of the anti-evolution movement than University of Colorado science professor Susan Epperson. Yet most of the freshman students who come into her class know nothing of her role in history, or the role she played in protecting their education and defending their religious freedom.

As a 25-year-old teacher during the 1960s, Epperson challenged a law in the state of Arkansas that made it a crime to teach “the theory or doctrine that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals.”

Forty years ago this month, in Epperson v. Arkansas, the US Supreme Court struck down the law, and others that banned the teaching of evolution, as unconstitutional. “The law’s effort was confined to an attempt to blot out a particular theory because of its supposed conflict with the Biblical account, literally read,” the court wrote in its decision.

The ruling was the first major judicial blow to creationists, who had largely silenced evolutionary education in many states across the country—ever since John Scopes was convicted in 1925 of the crime of teaching evolution in Tennessee’s infamous Scopes Monkey Trial.

But Epperson’s blow was only a flesh wound.

Bible as Science Book

Since Charles Darwin first put forth his idea of natural selection, the scientific community has viewed evolutionary theory as the unifying principle of biology. Among scientists, there is virtually no debate over its validity. And despite what religious fundamentalists insist, there is no credible scientific evidence backing up young earth creationism.

But instead of ending the cultural battle between religion and science, Epperson’s case ignited what has been a four-decade fight to keep God out of science class. Since the trial, the 68-year-old woman has watched from the sidelines as anti-evolution laws morphed with each constitutional defeat into “equal time” laws and now “academic freedom” laws. She has watched as creationism, in trying to pass judicial muster, shape shifted into “creation science,” then into “intelligent design,” and now “strength-and-weakness” requirements.

“It’s not going to die as long as there are people who are trying to make others believe this is a dichotomy,” Epperson said. “And as long as there are people who think the Bible is a science book.”

But now that this nation will soon be led by a president who firmly embraces evolution theory—and the past eight years of an administration hostile to science are almost over—some might be tempted to speculate that science education is, perhaps, safer.

President-elect Barack Obama has expressed firm support for eliminating Bush administration practices of censoring government agency scientific papers, promised to lead a green technological revolution and has pledged to return the United States to its vaunted position as a leader of scientific innovation.

But one needs to look no further than the photo of Scopes and Epperson that hangs in Eugenie Scott’s office for a reminder that it will take more than a progressive-minded president to beat back fundamentalist attacks on science education.

The picture [top] in Scott’s cluttered Oakland, Calif. office was taken only a couple of months after the 1968 victory for the teaching of evolution. It is of a young and red-headed Epperson, laughing and leaning across a table to pose next to a much older and sober Scopes, still recognizable and wearing his signature round spectacles.

Scott is the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit organization that defends the teaching of evolution from creationist attacks.

She, like Epperson, is under no delusion that the next presidency means defenders of science education will be able to shutter their offices, confident that the teaching of evolution is safe.

While an Obama presidency may spell good news for science, the truth is that he is unlikely to have much of an impact on the teaching of evolutionary theory on the ground.

As Scott has long said, “Creationists are proof of evolution.”

The US education system, unlike those in Europe and England, is very much decentralized. “The first thing to remember is that the teaching of evolution is a curriculum issue, which is done at the state level,” Scott said. “The federal government has virtually nothing to do with teaching of evolution.”

But that doesn’t mean that creationists don’t pay attention to what the president has to say on the issue—and she thinks they will use the election as a way to mobilize their base.

When Judge John E. Jones III ruled in 2005’s Kitzmiller v. Dover that intelligent design—the concept that life’s complexity demands a guiding hand—was merely repackaged creationism and had no place in public school science class, intelligent design proponents marketed themselves as martyrs to drum up support.

“Religious conservatives who see Obama as the new external threat will encourage people to circle the wagons and send your checks,” Scott said.

Meanwhile, last week, scientists and educators were more focused on what was playing out in Texas as the state Board of Education reviewed its science standards in preparation for approval next year.

The results of the board’s decision will undoubtedly have wide repercussions. The review of the standards is to establish guidelines for textbook publishers, who are watching the process closely.

In September, writing teams had removed a requirement that had had been inserted years earlier that said students must learn the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories like evolution. But earlier this month, three new reviewers with strong intelligent-design connections, including Stephen Meyer, vice president of the pro-ID Discovery Institute, were appointed by the creationist-friendly board members to look at the standards. In a new draft submitted last week, students would be required to learn “strengths and limitations” in three courses.

In addition, the new draft calls on middle school students to “discuss possible alternative explanations” for scientific concepts, opening the door for supernatural explanations like creationism.

While Meyer’s Discovery Institute claims it no longer wants to require the teaching of intelligent design, its latest book, Intelligent Design 101, champions just that:

If future courts recognize the many flaws in the Kitzmiller ruling, it may fare better in the courts and the classrooms. Such a scenario, balancing design and chance rationales for the origins of the universe and life, should be proposed in school boards, taught in public school classrooms, and presented in legislation. For legislators or teachers who are truly not seeking to get the “Bible back into school” but simply want fair representation of all competing scientific theories to be presented to students, intelligent design offers a real possibility to achieve that goal.

No Middle Ground

Epperson is not exactly a household name. “I live my life in anonymity,” she said. Yet, for the creationist movement, she has become something of a pariah. Her case stands as a line of demarcation for societal ills. An early display in the Answers in Genesis Museum, a place just south of Cincinnati dedicated to the concept that the Bible is a science textbook, was dedicated to her.

The Hall of Shame, no longer part of the permanent exhibit, details a list of sins—abortion, the Columbine shooting—that curators say have taken place because Epperson won her case and allowed what they call atheism to be taught in public schools.

But her religious faith was one of the reasons why she was asked to be the plaintiff.

Not particularly outgoing, she remembers being terrified when she was asked by the Arkansas Education Association to be the plaintiff in the case. She knew that the law prohibited her from teaching students that man descended from another animal. She knew that to do so would mean she would be fired. The daughter of a biology professor, raised Episcopalian, she fully accepted evolutionary theory. Still, there were plenty of other topics to address with students to keep the second-year teacher busy.

But when Epperson read the initial complaint already written by the teacher’s association attorney—that such laws were an attempt to advance a particular religious viewpoint and therefore violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause—she realized that she fully supported the case.

Her attorney wanted to make the argument clear that one could be a Christian and accept evolutionary theory.

Forty years later, Epperson doesn’t see an end to the battle.

A pro-science Administration will do little to change the minds of creationists, she believes. And science educators will likely be fighting the same battle in different incarnations 40 years from now.

When asked her what she believes is the way to heal this divide, she struggles to come up with an answer and wants to know what other people think. Finally, she offers, “It seems to me that for a lot of people on the creationist side, there is no middle ground.”

Each year, one or two of her students challenge evolution in her class. She doesn’t engage with them. Instead, she suggests they meet after class for a cup of coffee, so they can discuss their religious beliefs.

The best hope, she suggested, is for evangelicals who embrace science to live well and lead by setting the best example.

“Hopefully we can let some of those people see, wow, that person really is a Christian,” Epperson offered. “Maybe it’s one person at a time.”