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Utah's non-war over evolution

It's taught — but probably not believed

Published: Saturday, March 19 2005 12:00 a.m. MST

Anxious e-mails have been filling Karlene Bauer's inbox this school year — messages about Cobb County, Ga., and Dover, Pa., and all the other places where people are up in arms over the teaching of evolution.

Bauer, who teaches at Jordan High School and is on a listserv of AP biology teachers across the country, says she's happy to be in Utah, where Darwin's 146-year-old theory is currently making neither waves nor headlines.

One might suppose, given that Utahns tend to be both conservative and religious, that evolution would be a contentious topic in Utah's schools; but yet another legislative session has passed with no mention of Charles Darwin. And Brett Moulding can count on his fingers the number of anti-evolution phone calls he's gotten in the past 10 years, first as science education specialist and then as curriculum director for the Utah State Office of Education.

As Murray high biology teacher Steve Scheidell says, "It's not a thing to panic about here."

That may be because not all biology teachers in Utah tackle the touchiest part of evolutionary theory: how humans came to be. And Utah students often don't believe what they've been taught anyway, because they've learned something different from teachers in LDS Church seminary classes.

As a whole, Utahns tend to be conflicted about the intersection of evolution and public education. A Dan Jones Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll conducted last week found that 64 percent of Utahns think evolution should be taught in biology classes — and 70 percent think creationism, "Intelligent Design" and other belief systems should be taught there too.

It is this desire for equal class time for Darwin and "alternative theories" that has set off the latest battles in America's 80-year-old evolution wars, whose most famous early skirmish was the 1925 trial and conviction (later overturned) of Tennessee teacher John Scopes, who tried to teach evolutionary theory. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Louisiana law requiring equal treatment of evolution and "creation science" was an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment, but that has hardly been the end of the friction.

The National Center for Science Education, a pro-evolution organization based in California, reports that eight state legislatures have considered evolution bills this year; and there have been "33 incidents of significant anti-evolution activity in local communities in 15 states." In many of these cases, anti-evolutionists are pulling out the "academic freedom" card, arguing that their First Amendment rights are being trampled if alternative theories aren't discussed in the classroom.

In Dover, Pa., the school board voted in January that biology students must learn about alternatives to Darwin's theory of evolution, a decision that is now being challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. This winter a federal judge ruled that the school board in Cobb County, Ga., must remove stickers — "evolution is a theory, not a fact" — that the board had previously ordered placed on all high school biology textbooks. The school board is now appealing that order. Kansas, whose state school board had ordered evolution removed from the curriculum in 1999 then reinstated it in 2001, is now revisiting the issue, with an anti-evolution majority now on the school board. In state legislatures like Montana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, bills were introduced this year that would mandate that teachers include "alternative theories" to evolution, or would allow teachers to challenge evolutionary theory in the classroom. Some of the bills failed to get out of committee, some are still in play.

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