Montana Creationism-Whole town gets involved in debate

From: Al Koop <>
Date: Sun Feb 29 2004 - 22:56:45 EST

From the NewYork Times

Kurt Wilson for The New York Times

Aaron Lebowitz led a student walkout in protest of teaching creationism
at his school. (Photo)

ARBY, Mont., Feb. 26 In early December, a local Baptist minister,
Curtis Brickley, put up handbills inviting residents of this town,
population 754, to a meeting in the junior high school gym. The topic
was the teaching of evolution in the Darby schools.

Two hundred people from Darby and surrounding Ravalli County, which
nurtures a deep vein of conservative religious sentiment, filed into the
gym on Dec. 10. There, the well-spoken minister delivered an elaborate
PowerPoint presentation challenging Charles Darwin's theories.

There was nothing particularly unusual about Mr. Brickley's message. For
years, opponents of evolutionary theory have been pressing their case,
with similar arguments, in statehouses and school systems around the
country. What was unusual was the response.

Within days, a group of parents, business people, teachers, students and
other residents mobilized to defend Darwin against Mr. Brickley's
challenge. The group, Ravalli County Citizens for Science, phoned a
biotechnology firm in nearby Hamilton asking for help and was connected
with Dr. Jay Evans, a research immunologist. He began looking into Mr.
Brickley's claims, which were drawn in part from materials from the
Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based organization affiliated with many
conservative causes.

Refuting Mr. Brickley's claims, Dr. Evans said, "took me one afternoon."
As soon as he had the information, it went to the rest of the citizens'
committee, and from there to the wider community.

Partly because of the contentious dynamics of an election year, partly
because of the coast-to-coast influence of the Discovery Institute,
local disputes on the teaching of evolution are simmering in states from
Alabama to Ohio to California. But with the help of the Internet,
defenders like the group in Ravalli County are springing up all over the

Some arise spontaneously, in response to challenges like the one here.
(The Ravalli County group was organized by Rod Miner, co-manager of a
Darby company that builds bicycles for handicapped people.) Others have
been around for years. The rise of the Internet has helped like-minded
groups exchange information.

"We do get a bit of a jump start, as you get more of these citizens'
groups building on previous experience," said Patricia Princehouse, who
teaches evolutionary biology at Case Western Reserve University in
Cleveland and who was a founder of the group Ohio Citizens for Science.

Some of the groups take their leads from umbrella organizations like the
National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif., which tracks
the disputes and supports the teaching of mainstream evolution. Eugenie
Scott, executive director of the center, said it was fair to compare the
swift formation and seemingly spontaneous organization of many of those
groups to the young, Internet-driven base of support that drove the
presidential candidacy of Howard Dean with one difference.

"The Dean supporters are messianic in their zeal to change the world,"
she said. "We aren't. There's no salvation in evolution."

Perhaps the major reason for the outbreak of challenges to mainstream
evolution is the widespread influence and activism of the Discovery
Institute, said Paul R. Gross, an emeritus professor of life sciences at
the University of Virginia. The institute's officials, fellows and
followers have been involved in towns, cities and states across the

Among the institute's signature claims is the theory of intelligent
design: that certain biochemical structures in cells are too complex to
have been a result of natural selection alone, and therefore must have
been designed by something or someone.

Both sides agree that there have been a remarkable number of challenges
in recent months to the way that evolution is taught in the schools.

"We've never seen this much activity at one time before," said a
Discovery spokesman, Rob Crowther, adding that much of the activity had
come about because many states were revising their teaching standards.

Dr. John West, associate director of the institute's Center for Science
and Culture, said defenders of evolution want "to do anything but
actually talk about the science; that's their public relations

Whatever the institute's precise role, the counterattack by the citizens
groups has been wide-ranging.

In Ohio, state science standards and model lesson plans are being
revised under pressure from critics of evolutionary theory. Among the
successes of the Ohio citizens' group and its Web site, Dr. Princehouse
said, is a collection of 3,000 signatures on a petition to keep
intelligent design out of the standards. And in a recent fight over
certifying biology textbooks in Texas, the groups brought in researchers
to testify during hearings.

"I'm going to tend to listen to the person who has credentials and is
teaching at a university," said Mary Helen Berlanga, a Texas school
board member in Corpus Christi. "I think they're getting involved early
enough to do some damage control."

Here in Darby, where the aging neon sign at Bud & Shirley's Motel glows
only with the letters "MOT" at night, but a drive-through espresso stand
called Brewed Awakening offers its wares across from the high school,
the cultural and political battle is far from over. It has pitted
"neighbor against neighbor, and friend against friend," as a resident,
Sarah Southwell, put it in the contentious school board hearings that
are still going on.

Larry Rose, the local marshal, who gained brief fame in 1998 for issuing
David Letterman a ticket for speeding in Darby, patiently explains what
he believes is scientific evidence that the Earth is only 6,000 years
old, not the billions of years determined by mainstream science.

"I believe exactly what the Bible does," Mr. Rose said. "Like the flood
4,400 years ago."

Mary Lovejoy, a member of the school board who also belongs to the
Ravalli County Citizens for Science, said the fight had been bruising.

"Kids are harrassed," said Mrs. Lovejoy, who has a daughter in the high
school. "There's been hideous name calling. I'm not a bastard child, I'm
not narrow-minded, and I'm not an atheist."

Others see the battle as a classic case of small-town democracy
grappling with cosmic questions in a state where local communities are
given wide latitude to set their own school curriculums.

On Tuesday, there was yet another confrontation at the board meeting,
and on Wednesday, about 50 Darby High School students staged a walkout
carrying signs with slogans like "Don't spread the gospel into school"
and "Strike against creation science." There are 39 students in this
year's graduating class.

"We decided to create this group to figure out what was going on," said
Aaron Lebowitz, a senior who was a founder of Citizens for Science and
the chief organizer of the walkout. Partly as a result of the group, he
said, "awareness has been awesome."

In a town where not just the marshal but also the mayor, the state
representative, the library director and at least two of the five school
board members say they have strong creationist beliefs, the Darwin
defenders have had to fight to gain political traction. But even some of
their staunchest opponents give them credit.

"As a group, I think they've helped focus the other perspective, which
I'm thankful for," said Doug Banks, a general contractor and school
board member who has favored curriculum changes that could lead to
criticisms of evolution. "As much as that's concerned, they've had a
positive impact."

The reaction to Mr. Brickley's presentation on Dec. 10 was predictably
divided. Dixie Stark, a local resident who manages nonprofit programs
for adult literacy, called it polished but scientifically superficial.

Mr. Brickley, who conceded in an interview that he had no training in
science, said he believed that life science should allow for the
possibility of supernatural influences, which he said evolution did not.
"In my opinion, you have to allow for natural causes and not-natural
causes," he said.

He said that he received little or no direct coaching from the Discovery
Institute before his talk, but that he had gathered their materials and
used them because he found the arguments compelling, and compatible with
his own views.

Many scientists, including Dr. Evans, the researcher in Hamilton, have
said that evolution is compatible with their faith.

By Jan. 21, the Citizens for Science had arranged for its own
professionally produced talk in the gym, featuring Dr. Alan Gishlick, a
paleontologist at the National Center for Science Education. Mr.
Lebowitz, the high school senior, said he was relieved when nearly as
many people showed up as for Mr. Brickley's talk.

Still, after three long evenings of often anguished public comment in
late January and early February, a preliminary vote of the school board
was 3-2 to add a revision to school policy suggested by Mr. Brickley.

The revision specifies that teachers "assess evidence for and against"
the theory of evolution. Gina Schallenberger, the board's chairwoman,
said the change was needed because evolution is "not two plus two equals
four," that reputable scientists themselves disagree over whether the
theory is correct.

Dr. Evans, who has since joined Citizens for Science, said the vast
majority of scientists accepted evolution as correct. A final vote on
the proposal is expected next month.
Received on Sun, 29 Feb 2004 22:56:45 -0500

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