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Okla. evolution disclaimer draws Baptist support amid lawsuit threats

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–A textbook committee’s plan to place an evolution disclaimer in new Oklahoma public school textbooks has drawn support from Oklahoma Baptists and criticism from a church-state separation group and a national science teachers’ organization.

A member of the Oklahoma State Textbook Committee who proposed the disclaimer said it was offered as a compromise and it should not be viewed as a “church-state issue.”

The committee voted unanimously Nov. 5 to require publishers of science textbooks used in Oklahoma public schools to insert a disclaimer stating evolution is a “controversial theory” and “any statement about life’s origins should be considered as theory, not fact.”

Messengers to the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma annual meeting Nov. 15-16 overwhelmingly approved a resolution commending the committee’s action and encouraging Baptists “to contact their state legislators and ask them to support the textbook committee’s work.”

The BGCO resolution mentioned “certain public policy groups” that have warned of potential lawsuits because of the disclaimer.

Barry Lynn, executive director of the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, wrote in a Nov. 11 letter to state Secretary of Education Floyd Coppedge that the committee’s action “raises serious constitutional concerns and that failure to reverse it could result in a lawsuit.”

Lynn sent copies of the letter to Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating and state schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett.

“Having failed at their efforts to have creationism taught as a science in public schools, Religious Right activists are trying other strategies,” Lynn wrote. “Requiring the posting of anti-evolution disclaimers in biology books is one of these. This gambit should be rejected in Oklahoma. It not only threatens the separation of church and state, it fosters scientific illiteracy as well.”

But John Dickmann, the committee member who proposed the disclaimer, said Lynn is mistaken.

“We never said take Darwin or macro-evolution out of the textbooks. We’re saying let’s look at the whole picture. Let the students decide on the basis of the facts.”

He added, “There’s nothing in the disclaimer that would make it a church-state issue.”

The disclaimer differentiates between micro-evolution (changes within a species) and macro-evolution (species changing into higher forms). The disclaimer states macro-evolution “has never been observed” and that evolution “also refers to the unproven belief that random, undirected forces produced a world of living things.”

Several newspapers reported the committee intends for creationism to be taught, and a messenger who opposed the BGCO resolution mentioned creationism in his objection. Dickmann said such perceptions are inaccurate.

“Belief systems should not be taught in science,” Dickmann said.

The disclaimer, which is identical to one used in Alabama public school textbooks since 1996, is legally sound because of its careful wording, which excludes any mention of religious viewpoints, Dickmann said.

No one has legally challenged the Alabama disclaimer, said a spokesman at the Alabama education department. In 1997, however, a Louisiana federal judge struck down an evolution disclaimer which teachers were required to read to their students.

“No biology teacher has to read this disclaimer,” noted Dickmann, who teaches sixth-grade “at-risk” students in Broken Arrow.

He said state law requires the committee to submit a “significant number” of approved books for selection. Because of disagreement among committee members over which books were suitable, he offered the disclaimer as a compromise, he said.

“This disclaimer was a win for three groups. It was a win for the publishers, because all their books were approved. It was a win for the textbook committee members who wanted all the books. And it was a win for those of us who are tired of a one-sided approach. We want macro-evolution in the books, just not as indisputable fact,” Dickmann said.

Kentucky has removed “evolution” from its textbooks in favor of “change over time,” while Kansas officials have chosen to exclude evolution questions from state tests.

The National Science Teachers Association criticized the Oklahoma disclaimer in a statement released Nov. 17 in conjunction with its Southern Area Convention in Tulsa.

“Based on research, testing and observation, the theory of evolution is the best scientific explanation we have for how life on Earth has changed and continues to change,” the statement said.

Gov. Keating appointed the State Textbook Committee, which includes 10 public school teachers and one parent of a public school student. The state Senate confirms the members, who are appointed to three-year terms.

Seven of the 11 members are affiliated with the Association of Professional Oklahoma Educators, a group formed in 1996. None are members of the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union and an affiliate of the National Education Association.

At a Nov. 15 news conference, Keating said he doesn’t believe he descended from a baboon and that “all views of how man got here” should be discussed. He called the disclaimer “very thoughtful.”

Jim Huff, a member of Oklahoma City’s Southern Hills Baptist Church and an officer with the state chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, spoke against the BGCO resolution, saying creationism is not science but a faith position.

Resolution author Bob Green, pastor of Broken Arrow’s Arrow Heights Baptist Church, said evolution is not science and that “it could be one of the worst tools to cause young people to disbelieve other areas of Scripture.”

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  • Jerry Pierce