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CULTURE DIGEST: Miss. law allows creationism talk in classrooms; school district reinstates ‘Christmas break’; …

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Mississippi students are free to discuss creationism in public schools now that Gov. Haley Barbour signed a new state law that says no limits may be placed on teachers and students when addressing the origin of life.

“No local school board, school superintendent or school principal shall prohibit a public school classroom teacher from discussing and answering questions from individual students on the origin of life,” the bill, which passed the legislature in March and was signed by Barbour, a Republican, in late April, states.

Local school officials told the Associated Press that they had not previously encountered disputes about what theories could be discussed in class, but they fear the new law is so vague that court challenges are almost certain to arise.

Mike Halford, superintendent of Lowndes County schools in Mississippi, told AP that educators need clarification of what can be discussed in the classroom, especially as other states have fought fierce science curriculum battles.

“We’re starting to see lawsuits pop up from this [in other states],” Halford said. “It’s just a problem we don’t need.”

But Casey Luskin, program officer for public policy and legal affairs with Discovery Institute, noted that the law says nothing about creationism or Intelligent Design, and for that matter, students could raise questions in support of philosophical naturalism or atheism.

“This law simply protects the right of teachers to answer students’ questions, and I don’t see what’s so controversial about that,” Luskin told Baptist Press. “I think this is a great law. I think it allows both academic freedom for teachers and freedom of inquiry for students.”

‘CHRISTMAS BREAK’ RETURNS IN COLORADO — A victory for the pro-Christmas crowd was achieved when a school district in Colorado Springs voted to reinstate “Christmas break” on school calendars where the term “winter break” had crept in during the past decade.

A board member had contacted the Alliance Defense Fund in December to inquire about the board’s legal right to use the word Christmas at a time when a wave of removing the holiday’s name was sweeping the nation.

Once ADF explained the legality of the term Christmas break, the Falcon School District 49 school board opened the idea for public debate.

“We certainly had testimony on both sides, but the preponderance of testimony and e-mails were 10-to-1 in favor of restoring it to Christmas,” board member Dave Stark told The Washington Times.

The board voted 3-2 in April to bring back the original name for the two-week December break.

What’s more, no one could figure out when the change to winter break was made, The Times said. Since 1899, the school district had observed Christmas break, but sometime within the past 10 years the name was changed to winter break across the board.

“We found the [Calendar Committee] had done it without any public input, that they decided to censor the name in a back room,” Stark told The Times. “The superintendent told us it should never have been changed without public discussion. There was much more anger over the fact that it was changed without a vote.”

Mike Johnson, senior legal counsel for ADF, commended the board for returning to the use of Christmas break.

“It’s ridiculous that we have to come to the point where it takes an act of political courage to call December 25 exactly what it is — Christmas,” he said. “The school board’s decision to return to the original ‘Christmas Break’ calendar reference is a matter of common sense. It does not promote religion and is perfectly constitutional.”

ADF said it stands ready to defend the school board in the event the decision is challenged in court.

‘STARTER HEROIN’ GROWING IN SCHOOLS — Drug Enforcement Administration agents nationwide have been alerted to watch for the spread of a disturbing trend starting in Dallas public schools, where dozens of students have been caught with a new powder known as “starter heroin,” USA Today reported.

Police first noticed middle and high school students snorting the mixture of ground-up cold medicines and heroin at the beginning of the current school year, USA Today said, and by the end of April they had logged 78 incidents in 11 schools in Dallas.

“It’s an emerging problem,” DEA spokesman Steve Robertson told USA Today. “It’s something we’re tracking to see if we can spread the word before it becomes a huge problem.”

Officials describe starter heroin as a tan powder made mostly from the ingredients in Tylenol PM with a little heroin mixed in, and it goes by the name “cheese.” The drugs are commonly folded into notebook paper, USA Today said, and a single hit goes for around $2. Starter heroin is so affordable to students that experts fear it will only get them hooked on harder substances.

In other drug news, USA Today noted that prescription drugs, methamphetamine and marijuana are sending more people than ever into drug treatment.

Alcohol abuse, which remains the most common reason for treatment, was a factor in 40 percent of the nearly 1.9 million admissions into treatment centers in 2004, according to a study by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The number was down from 53 percent of the 1.7 million cases a decade earlier.

But the number of prescription drug abusers entering rehab was up 62 percent from three years earlier, the study found, and the number of meth addicts in treatment jumped 57 percent from 2001 to 2004.

CHRISTIAN ROCK LEANS MAINSTREAM — A recent New York Times assessment of the platinum selling Christian band MercyMe’s crossover into mainstream radio noted the changing status of Christian rock.

“In an overwhelmingly Christian country, it may seem strange that Christian rock even exists as a niche genre; if rock better reflected American demographics, then secular rock would be the niche,” writer Kelefa Sanneh concluded April 27. “But at a time when rock radio commands a dwindling core of listeners, and when major labels are struggling to create the multi-million-selling stars they depend upon, niche status might not seem so bad. MercyMe already has a devoted fan base, a ready-made touring circuit and lots of loyal album buyers. The devil may still have the best tunes (for now), but can he match that business model?”

Sanneh said MercyMe’s latest album, “Coming Up to Breathe,” is full of songs that seem to be about a romantic relationship but turn out to be about a relationship with God, making them much easier to play on secular radio stations and accessible to a wider audience. Only one song on the album mentions Jesus by name, he said, though every song on the album is about salvation through Christ.

Bands like MercyMe, Casting Crowns and other top Christian rock bands routinely outsell many of their secular counterparts, Sanneh said. MercyMe’s 2001 album, “Almost There,” sold more than two million copies, and 2004’s “Undone” sold more than 600,000, which is comparable to Bruce Springsteen’s latest album. And Casting Crowns reached No. 9 on the Billboard album chart last fall, he said.

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  • Erin Roach