On the 10th day of science class, Roger DeHart taught "creationism." His critics thought he should give it a rest.
For more than a decade, the biology teacher at Burlington-Edison High School, north of Seattle, taught a two-week section on evolution. On the last day, he would talk about a branch of creationism known as "intelligent design." The theory holds that the sheer complexity of life defies the science of chance and points to an intelligent architect.
The local school board backed him unanimously when the approach became publicized in 1998. But the threat of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union - on the grounds that "intelligent design" is religious and therefore illegal to teach - changed all that. A new superintendent told him to drop the discussion and will allow him only limited criticism of evolution.
"I take issue with it being a religious thing," Mr. DeHart says. "I never mentioned God. I said: here's the controversy, you decide."
For much of the century, faith and science have fought a tug of war inside the classroom. Science has largely prevailed in recent decades, as DeHart found. But what some see as a rearguard action by creationists may be changing that. As states review science-curriculum standards, more educators are pushing for - and winning - a voice for the biblical account of how the universe was formed.
Last summer, the Kansas Board of Education voted to excise most references to evolution from the state's science curriculum and no longer require knowledge of evolution to pass state tests. This sparked anti-Darwinian brush fires of varying intensity in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and New Mexico.
Nearly a dozen states are scheduled to review science standards during the next two years, including bellwether Texas.
"The battle is only beginning to heat up," says Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Berkeley, Calif.
Caught in the middle are students who have questions about faith even as they prepare to enter a "real world" where scientific understanding is increasingly a prerequisite for success.
"I allowed students to write either a position paper on evolution or one on intelligent design, giving five best evidences," DeHart says of his approach. "Or they could choose to have a debate. Now they can't do either. The students are the losers here. Where is freedom of speech when they're censoring someone? Is that what they want to teach?"
The fallout from Scopes
The publication of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" in 1859 produced controversy but not much teaching of evolution in schools - until the events leading up to the famous Scopes trial in 1925, which found teacher John Scopes guilty of teaching evolution in violation of Tennessee law. His conviction was later overturned on a technicality.
The practical impact of the trial was that Darwin all but disappeared from schools for several decades. But in the 1960s, a post-Sputnik push for better science education led to the inclusion of evolution in textbooks. Hard on its heels came the movement toward creation science. Defined as belief in the scientific accuracy of the biblical creation story, the movement emerged in the 1970s and grew in influence until 1987. A Supreme Court decision that year restricted the teaching of creation science with religious intent in public schools.
But in the 1990s, the movement regained confidence. For one thing, it developed a new strategy that focuses on winning elections and working with officials at the local level. The result has been local fights that sometimes turn nasty even as they remain beyond the national spotlight. The Kansas decision last year, some say, is the bubbling up to the state level of this approach.
Creationists have also tapped into a rich vein of concern. A 1997 Gallup poll showed that 45 percent of adults believe in a biblical version of creation, another 39 percent believe that humans evolved over time but with divine assistance ("theistic evolution"), and just 10 percent believe in evolution absent divinity.
Some observers say the movement has mushroomed in part by exploiting fears that science has become predominant in society - leaving no room for religious views that many embrace.
Indeed, John Morris, president of the Institute for Creation Research, a group located near San Diego that includes many well-credentialed scientists and academics, says he and other groups are witnessing a burgeoning interest in creationism.
Mr. Morris charges that evolution, or "naturalism," has taken on the trappings of religion, just as atheism has come to be defined as a religion or a world view that governs people's perceptions of who we are and why we exist.
Viewed from that perspective, the Kansas decision to delete evolution is "a move to take religion out of the public schools and put science back in," he says.
It's a given that a new approach is needed in the classroom, agrees Philip Johnson, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a leader of the intelligent-design movement. He also sees a need to rethink what is labeled "science."
"Materialists have seized the name science," Professor Johnson says. He objects to evolution theory being used to prove that matter and natural law can create anything without some assistance from God.
Joining the battle
To critics, such arguments prove the need for a vigorous defense of evolution.
For one thing, there's been a shift in creation theory, says Ronald Numbers, a professor of the history of science and medicine at the University of Wisconsin. Thought has moved away from "old Earth" creationism, in which the story of creation in Genesis represented a time period of millions, if not billions, of years, to the "young Earth" viewpoint, which maintains our planet is only 6,000 to 10,000 years old.
Thus, even as traditional science has advanced to a more refined view of evolution, creationism has moved toward a stricter and more biblically centered explanation.
Too, critics are troubled by the movement's terminology - especially the effort to portray science in the same light as religion.
"Science is not a religion. It is inappropriate to characterize it in that way," says Robert Pennock, a professor of philosophy at the College of New Jersey and author of "Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism."
Ms. Scott of the National Center for Science Education says a discussion is worthwhile - just not in school. "The debate between theism and materialism is legitimate," says Scott, "but it shouldn't take place in the classroom. Any teacher who teaches there is no God has stepped over the line, just as I wouldn't want my child to be taught that the Grand Canyon was formed in six days."
She is concerned that the intelligent-design movement is bent on hiding religious objections to evolution. "The Kansas decision carefully avoids legal entanglements by omitting evolution," she says. "It doesn't ban it, it just discourages it."
Scientists withdraw texts
The debate is unlikely to end anytime soon. In Kansas, the focus has now shifted to what classroom materials will be used. The new standards there draw heavily on copyrighted material belonging to several national scientific organizations. In the wake of the curriculum decision last summer, those groups have refused permission to use their texts, calling the new state standards "a disservice to the students of Kansas." The Kansas Board of Education has subsequently reworded the standards to excise copyrighted material.
Despite objections from the scientific community, Morris of the Institute for Creation Research says the days of evolutionist hegemony in schools are numbered. "It will never go back to the way it was," he says. "Kansas is the crack in the dike."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society