Evolution in court: 'both sides win'

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Fundamentalist Christian groups say the just-concluded "California monkey trial" was only the beginning of a nationwide crusade against the teachings of Darwinian evolution in public schools to the exclusion of the Biblical account of creation.

A superior court judge ruled here March 6 that this state's policy of teaching evolution in science classes does not violate the freedom of those who believe the literal accuracy of the Book of Genesis, which says God created man. But, declaring that "both sides have won," Judge Irving Perluss went on to reprimand the California Department of Education for not adequately communicating to its teachers that evolution should be taught as theory, not as dogma.

"We've done what we came here to do: that is, establish the rights of the Christian child," said Kelly Segraves, the seminary-trained Baptist who directs the Creation Science Research Center in San Diego and filed suit against the state on behalf of three of his children. Hugging his 13-year old son, Casey, after the trial, Mr. Segraves told the Monitor: "We've made sure dogmatic assertions can't be made in the science classroom anymore."

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

The five-day trial drew overflow crowds and national media coverage; it was broadcast live to a potential cable television audience of 5 million people. The outcome is expected to give momentum to the efforts of fundamentalist Christian churches to win "equal time" for the Biblical version of creation in public school classrooms. So far they have succeeded in having legislation to that effect introduced in a dozen states.

The courts repeatedly have refused to outlaw the teaching of evolution in the public schools, but some local school boards now require that the so-called "creationist" theory be taught in addition to evolution. In Washington County, Va., for example, teachers are required to read to their students a school board resolution that points to creationism as an alternative to evolution. In DeKalb County, Ga., biology teachers must show a "creation-life" film strip.

Conservative Christian groups like Moral Majority appear to be feeling their political oats, says University of California law Prof. Jesse Choper, who predicts, over the next several years, a resurrection of constitutional debates of religious issues such as evolution, prayer in the schools, and federal aid to church schools.

"More than likely, the Moral Majority groups will be raising the old church-state issues. And yet I don't think the present Supreme Court is going to back off. These groups will probably be more successful going directly to state legislatures and school boards," says Professor Choper, who teaches constitutional law and is a recognized authority on the First Amendment and religious freedom.

Most of the media people and the spectators who flocked to the fifth floor of the Sacramento County Courthouse seemed to expect this trial to be a repeat of the famous and stormy 1925 Scopes "monkey trial" in which John Thomas Scopes, a high-school biology teacher in Dayton, Tenn., was sued by the state for teaching the theory of evolution.

In what is considered to be one of the great intellectual battles of this century, Clarence Darrow, the agnostic and legendary criminal trial lawyer who defended Scopes, was pitted against the eloquent, God-fearing William Jennings Bryan, who was a three-time Democratic nominee for president and who served as Woodrow Wilson's secretary of state.

Bryan settled for Pyrrhic victory. Scopes was convicted and fined $100, but during cross-examination Darrow humiliated Bryan, who said he accepted the Bible literally. "If evolution wins, Christianity goes," Bryan said at the trial. "They are as antagonistic as light and darkness, as antagonistic as good and evil."

The opening of the California trial appeared to be another classic clash between science and fundamentalist religion. Deputy State Attorney General Robert Tyler threatened to call astronomer Carl Sagan and Nobel laureate chemist Arthur Kornberg to testify on behalf of the state's science curriculum and to support the scientific theory that the universe was created in one great primal explosion 10 billion years ago and that man evolved through natural selection from lower forms of life.

The case lacked the spectacle and legal significance of the Scopes trial because, like other so-called "scientific creationists," Segraves does not argue that evolution is wrong and the Bible is right. Rather, he holds that the "creationist" explanation of man's origin is scientific and that a belief in the theory of evolution required an act of faith. In an apparent switch of strategy , Segraves did not ask the court to give the creationist theory equal time in science classes but only that evolution not be taught is "dogmatic fact."

"This is not a showdown between science and religion.

We're not tying to sneak the Bible into the classroom or ban the teaching of evolution," said Segraves attorney, Robert Turner, in response to the press's calling the trial "Scopes II." "What is stake is the right to practice religion freely without interference from the state. My client believes that God created man and that man is not descended from an amoeba or gila monster . . . Kelly Segraves wants his kids to take science, but he doesn't like them being taught that man evolved from apes."

The judge eventually ruled that any discussion of either evolution or "scientific creationism" was irrelevant, and the case was decided on hair-splitting interpretations of whether the wording of the California policy for teaching science actually thwarted the religious freedom of Segraves's children.

The court concluded that the state's policy, which says, in part, "that dogmatism be changed to conditional statements where speculation is offered for origins" was adequate accommodation for the religious rights of students who disagreed with conventional theory of evolution. Judge Perluss, however, directed the state department of education to circulate to schools and to textbook publishers these littleknown gu idelines modifying the teaching of evolution.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...