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Evolution biology text disclaimer may become Okla. legislative battle

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–Several Oklahoma lawmakers are considering legal steps to overturn a state attorney general’s ruling Feb. 2 that a state textbook committee cannot require textbook publishers to insert an evolution disclaimer in new biology textbooks.

One of the lawmakers, Rep. Bill Graves, R.-Oklahoma City, and a Baptist layman, said he believes Attorney General Drew Edmondson was “way off base” in ruling that the committee exceeded its authority in requiring the disclaimer.

Edmondson also ruled the committee violated the state’s Open Meeting Act by not including the disclaimer in its agenda when it approved the requirement on Nov. 5.

The attorney general’s opinion is binding unless a court overturns it.

A legislative measure, House Bill 1876, introduced in December and awaiting a committee’s approval, is intended to clarify what the committee believed was its legal right to make such requirements, said Rep. Jim Reese, R.-Nardin, Okla., the bill’s author.

The disclaimer, identical to one used in Alabama, stated evolution is a “controversial theory” and “any statement about life’s origins should be considered as theory, not fact.”

The disclaimer had drawn criticism from a national science teachers’ organization and from some Oklahoma education leaders.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, warned Oklahoma officials in November that failure to reverse the action “could result in a lawsuit.”

Oklahoma Southern Baptists lent their support to the disclaimer during their annual meeting in November, and Gov. Frank Keating spoke favorably of it at the time.

Responding to the attorney general’s ruling, however, Keating told reporters he sympathizes with the committee’s intention but also respects the attorney general’s opinion.

Oklahoma law provides that if a proposed textbook contains “significant inaccuracies” or information that is “not current” the committee “may adopt the book on a provisional basis,” but “contingent upon the publisher providing a modified or revised textbook” acceptable to the committee.

Edmondson wrote in his opinion: “The statement, while hinting at disagreement with some of the scientific information in the textbooks, does not purport to correct significant inaccuracies or outdated information, and therefore does not fall within this statutory provision.”

Reese responded, “In my opinion, the attorney general is dead wrong in his interpretation of the law.

“I think he did backflips legally to prohibit them from doing what they did.”

Reese said his bill will face an uphill fight if he pushes it beyond committee.

Rep. Abe Deutschendorf, D-Lawton, Okla., a member of Trinity Baptist Church, Lawton, said he might be willing to support Reese’s bill. He said most likely he would not support a lawsuit over the attorney general’s ruling.

“I am a little dismayed at people who think it makes Oklahoma look bush league to include a disclaimer when there are scientists from many fields who hold to the creation account,” Deutschendorf said.

Graves, a member of Heritage Baptist Church, Oklahoma City, said no strategy or timetable has been set for any legal challenge to the attorney general’s opinion.

John Dickmann, the textbook committee member who introduced the disclaimer, said he believes the committee acted legally in approving the disclaimer. Furthermore, he said the Nov. 5 agenda included consideration of science textbooks, and he said he believes the agenda was legally amended to include consideration of the disclaimer.

The textbook committee will meet Feb. 18 to decide the fate of the 16 biology books that stirred the controversy. Dickmann said he will vote to reject at least four of the books because he said they are “incomplete” and “inaccurate.”

The disclaimer distinguishes between micro-evolution (change within a species) and macro-evolution (species changing into higher forms).

Last year, Kentucky removed the word “evolution” in favor of “change over time” in its classrooms, and Kansas officials have chosen to exclude evolution questions from state-mandated tests.

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  • Jerry Pierce