Court Battle Between Teaching of Evolution, Creationism In Georgia County Schools

In 1925, a Tennessee high-school teacher names John Scopes stood trial for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution, prompting the famous Scopes Monkey Trial. The conflict between science and religion will again be taken up in court as the case of Selman v. Cobb County School District, No. 1:02CV2325 (N.D. Ga. filed Aug. 21, 2002) goes before the U.S. District Court in Atlanta on Monday.

The focus of the trial is on a sticker placed inside the front cover of 10th grade biology textbooks in 2002, which states, “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."

Jeffrey Selman and other Cobb County parents have filed a suit against the County School District, charging that the sticker promotes discussion of creationism, the Biblical belief that God created the earth in six days.

Following the 1925 Scopes trial, the teaching of creationism in public schools has been banned by U.S. Courts, creating a precedence for the separation of church and state in public education. The issue at stake in Selman v. Cobb County School District is whether the school board’s decision to place the stickers on textbooks was for secular purposes or with religious intent.

Representing Selman and other parents in the county, Attorney Michael E. Manely asserted that the school district’s intent was driven by religious reasons, in order to disclaim the existence of evolution. He argues that evolution is indeed fact, standing as the most commonly accepted explanation among scientists for the origin of life, and that the stickers are a covert attempt to inject religious theories into education.

However, the school board defends its decision, stating in court records that the purpose of the stickers was not “to restrict the teaching of evolution, [or] to promote or require the teaching of creationism,” but rather, “to foster critical thinking among students, to allow academic freedom consistent with legal requirements, to promote tolerance and acceptance of diversity of opinion and to ensure a posture of neutrality toward religion."

As defense attorney for the school board and the school district, E. Linwood Gunn IV argues that the school board’s action was taken to strengthen its evolution curriculum. According to the Fulton County Daily Report, Gunn stated, “The only thing the school board did is acknowledge there is a potential conflict [between the science of evolution and creationism] and there is a potential infringement on people’s beliefs if you present it in a dogmatic way. We’re going to do it in a respectful way.”

The disclaimer does not refer to specific Biblical scriptures or to particular religious theories on the origin of life. However, Judge Clarence Cooper, who will hear the case on Monday, recognizes that the statement on the stickers “is not clearly neutral towards evolution” and was allowed to be placed on textbooks “as a way to accommodate religious beliefs.” The court’s ruling will reside on whether the Cobb school board’s decision was primarily to address student and parental concerns over the teaching of evolution, or to promote a religious agenda.