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Conservative win: Court tosses out evolution ruling in Georgia

ATLANTA (BP)–A federal appeals court May 25 rejected a lower court ruling on the constitutionality of evolution disclaimers in the form of stickers in 35,000 textbooks in a Cobb County, Ga., school district, vacating the decision based on insufficient evidence.

The three-judge panel for the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta unanimously concluded that the case needed to return to U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper because “unfilled gaps in the record” kept them from understanding how Cooper arrived at his decision in January 2005.

“Everyone agrees that some evidence presented to the district court has been omitted from the record on appeal, but the attorneys have not been able to identify what was omitted,” Judge Ed Carnes wrote for the panel. “The problems presented by a record containing significant evidentiary gaps are compounded because at least some key findings of the district court are not supported by the evidence that is contained in the record.”

Cooper had ruled that the stickers violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which calls for the separation of church and state, because, in Cooper’s words, “an informed, reasonable observer” would “interpret the sticker to convey a message of endorsement of religion.”

The school board complied with the trial judge’s ruling, and school staff and students had scraped the stickers from all science textbooks while the matter was appealed.

Carnes left open the possibility that a new trial for the stickers may be needed — an idea favored by many who support teaching the controversy surrounding evolution.

“We leave it to the district court whether to start with an entirely clean slate and a completely new trial or to supplement, clarify and flesh out the evidence that it has heard in the four days of bench trial already conducted,” Carnes wrote.

Casey Luskin, an attorney with the Discovery Institute, a national think tank that regularly poses scientific challenges to Darwinian evolution, called the decision a victory and said new evidentiary hearings could completely change the trial court’s original ruling against the school district.

“This is a major step towards a bigger victory for students, school districts and objective science education,” he said in a news release May 25.

“A final ruling in this case will be at least as important, if not more important, than the Dover school district case last year,” added Luskin, co-author of “Traipsing Into Evolution Intelligent Design and the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Decision.” “Eventually it’s likely that a decision will be handed down from this federal appellate court governing legal decisions in multiple states, whereas the Kitzmiller decision was from a trial court with no legal force outside of the parties in that local case.”

Supporters of Intelligent Design — which holds that living organisms are so complex they must have been designed by a higher, but unspecified, intelligence — would have preferred that the court of appeals rule the stickers constitutional, but a second chance at a district trial gives them hope.

It’s likely that after the district court rules again, the same appeals court will review the case a second time as well.

“No school should be in trouble for simply stating the facts. That’s what schools are supposed to do,” Alliance Defense Fund senior legal counsel Joel Oster said. “Though we wish the appeals court would have ruled on the constitutional merits of the case without sending it back to the district court, we are pleased that the district court’s ruling against the school district has been vacated.”

Attorneys with ADF, a conservative legal alliance, had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the textbook stickers case.

Schools in Cobb County had since 1995 torn chapters on evolution out of science textbooks in order to respect “the family teachings of a significant number of Cobb County citizens.” But the school system adopted the use of the disclaimer stickers in 2002 when a new biology book contained a section on evolution too large to remove.

The stickers, which were placed inside the front pages of science textbooks, read: “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.”

The appeals court said the federal district court must determine whether the school board’s placement of the stickers in books was “religiously neutral.”

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  • Erin Roach