In America’s culture wars, schoolchildren are on the front lines.
From Maine to California, parents, teachers and school boards are squabbling — and sometimes suing one another — over what children should learn about sex, how to teach about religion’s role in American history and how students ought to be introduced to the mystery of mankind’s origins.
These arguments have been going on, with varying degrees of intensity, for decades. But President Bush’s November victory — widely interpreted as defeat for liberals — seems to have emboldened the religious right and enlivened the debate.
“I think right now there’s a lot of new energy among some conservative Christian groups,” said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center.
As usual, the teaching of evolution is a center of contention. Parents and school boards are currently involved in court battles over it in at least 13 states.
But there are other flashpoints.
In Cupertino, Calif., fifth-grade teacher Steven Williams has filed suit against the school district that employs him, claiming that his First Amendment rights are violated by a policy that requires him to submit for approval any classroom handout mentioning religion.
The Phoenix-based Alliance Defense Fund, which is representing Williams, says the school’s policy effectively bans the teacher from handing out such important historical documents as the Declaration of Independence, which says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator . . . “
Nonsense, say school district officials. In fact, the Declaration of Independence is right in the students’ textbooks, district communications manager Jerry Nishihara points out. What’s not in the textbooks — and for good reason, school officials say — is the material Williams was handing out to students on his own.
There was, for example, a classroom handout entitled, “What Great Leaders Have Said About the Bible,” containing quotes from nine U.S. presidents and another from Jesus. Some of these quotes, school officials say, are fictitious.
Then there is the text of a prayer book, supposedly George Washington’s, that Williams handed out to students. Historians concluded in the 19th century that the book wasn’t Washington’s, although it may have belonged to one of his descendants.
At the root of disagreements like the one in Cupertino are feelings on the part of conservatives that schools go too far in trying to avoid violating the constitutional separation of church and state.
In suburban Dallas, for example, a school district is being sued for prohibiting students from exchanging cards and candy canes with Christmas-specific messages at a winter holiday party.
“We’re just sick and tired of all this criticism of all these foundational things that’s made America a great country,” said Jordan Lorence, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund.
But conservatives and fundamentalist Christians aren’t always the plaintiffs in such lawsuits.
Michael Newdow, a California man who complains that the inclusion of the words “under God” in the pledge of allegiance violate his 10-year-old daughter’s right to religious freedom, is going back to court.
Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out his original complaint on technical grounds, saying Newdow could not sue on his daughter’s behalf because he is divorced and does not have full custody. This time, his petition has been joined by other parents whose custody rights are not at issue.
Sex in school
Other culture battles in the schools involve what children should be learning about sex.
Texans, for example, squabbled recently over how textbooks should define marriage, and whether books used in health classes should mention condoms or contraception as an option for sexually active teenagers.
In both cases, conservatives won the day. Textbooks in use in public schools in Texas explicitly define marriage as between a man and a woman. And they present only one option for avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases — abstinence.
Books on all kinds of subjects continue to be a perennial source of controversy in schools. Year after year, parents object to the books their children are assigned or check out of school libraries, often citing language or sexual material they consider offensive.
According to the American Library Association, there have been widespread objections to the children’s book “King and King,” which tells the tale of a gay royal couple.
Religious conservatives also object to “occult” themes such as sorcery and witchcraft. Among their top targets: the wildly popular Harry Potter series.
Meanwhile, the argument over the teaching of evolution, which has been raging since before William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow faced off in the famous Scopes trial in Tennessee nearly 80 years ago, shows no signs of abating.
Last October, for example, the Dover, Pa., school board voted to require the teaching of “intelligent design” as an alternative to evolution in ninth grade biology classes. “Intelligent design,” a favored theory of religious conservatives, argues that life is too complex to have arisen solely through evolution, and that the guiding hand of a superior being must be behind it.
“Anyone with half a brain should have known we were going to be sued,” said school board member Angie Yingling, who initially supported the idea but has since reconsidered.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued in December, on behalf of eight families, arguing that intelligent design is not science, but an attempt to inject religion into science classes.
The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that promotes intelligent design, argues that if evolution were taught more skeptically, students would come to recognize that the theory alone cannot explain the incredible complexity of life and the biological processes that produced it.
However, since intelligent design is a new theory, “we don’t think it should be mandated” in schools, said John West, the associate director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute.
“The thing is, there’s very little in intelligent design to teach,” Glenn Branch, deputy of the National Center for Science Education, in Oakland, Calif., insisted. “The big uniting principle of intelligent design is that evolution is bad.”
Meanwhile, in Georgia’s Cobb County, a campaign by parents convinced the school board to require a warning sticker on biology textbooks stating that “evolution is a theory, not a fact” and imploring students to consider the books’ contents “with an open mind.”
The ACLU sued, and a court ordered the stickers removed.
Ken Miller, who co-authored the biology textbook used in Cobb County, called the sticker a failed attempt at compromise. The sticker, he said, “is factually incorrect, it is scientifically misleading and it is very poor educational policy.”
Miller, a professor of cell biology at Brown University, said that the authors of the sticker, like many critics of evolution, do not understand what the word “theory” means in science. Scientific theories are not conjectures, he said; they are exhaustively researched, overarching explanations of how the world works.
The theory of evolution, he said, is like the theory of gravitation, atomic theory, the germ theory of disease — explanations of the natural world exhaustively supported by experiment and observation. In science, Miller said, “the word ’theory’ actually implies a higher level of understanding than the word ‘fact.”’
Supporters of evolution have consistently prevailed in court battles in recent decades. But “if the scientists think they have won, they should think again,” said Haynes, of the First Amendment Center.
Polls consistently show fewer than half of Americans believe evolutionary theory is well supported by evidence. In a recent Gallup poll, 45 percent of those surveyed believe God created humans more or less in their current form about 10,000 years ago.
Haynes recommends a truce. Letting some of the creationist and intelligent design arguments into the curriculum could help students understand how science and religion have interacted over the centuries, he said.
Perhaps if students engage in the very same arguments their elders are struggling with, Haynes suggested, they might gain a better appreciation for the contentious world we live in.