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ACLU battles schools' warning about evolution

Like a warning label on a pack of cigarettes, the Cobb County, Ga., textbook sticker says: “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.”

The Cobb County school board placed the disclaimer on the books two years ago after more than 2,000 parents complained the schools were not teaching about the controversy over evolution among scientists and not informing students of alternative theories.

Yesterday, however, American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Michael Manely, representing parents who sued the suburban Atlanta school district over the textbook labeling, contended the school board is “doing more than accommodating religion. They are promoting religious dogma to all students.”

U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper is expected to take at least a month to hand down a ruling.

A biology textbook author testified in the week-long trial, asserting the school is wrongly bringing religion into its teaching by questioning evolution, which he regards as the foundation for much of modern science.

However, a specialist on the legal aspects of teaching evolution maintains the ACLU is twisting the case, making it an issue of motives and not evidence.

“Perceived motives are irrelevant,” said Seth Cooper, an attorney with the Seattle-based Discovery Institute‘s Center for Science & Culture. “Whether a parent in the community might be religious certainly has no bearing on whether neo-Darwinian and chemical evolutionary theories are supported by scientific data. But such motives are also largely irrelevant to the issues being decided by the judge in this case.”

The Discovery Institute has been the biggest promoter of “intelligent design,” a theory that the complexity and order of the universe and mankind suggest the action of an intelligent cause rather than random chance, without attempting to identify that cause.

Seth Cooper argues that First Amendment Establishment Clause cases, centered on religion in public life, should be about actions by governments and not parents, noting the stickers were adopted by the school board.

He pointed out that in an earlier order, Judge Cooper held he would not impute motives of parents to the school board in adopting the sticker.

The judge said the sticker had a dual secular purpose of promoting critical thinking and reducing parental offense in light of expanded evolution coverage in the science curriculum.

“Careful study and open-mindedness are part of good science education,” said the attorney, who helped submit a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on behalf of 30 doctoral scientists.

“Why doesn’t the ACLU want children to learn with an open mind?”

The brief highlights the scientific controversy surrounding neo-Darwinian and chemical evolutionary theories and the importance of critical thinking skills in science education.

The attorney Cooper said he hopes the judge’s decision will reflect a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Edwards vs. Aguillard, which recognized it is permissible to teach “scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories.”

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