Friday, February 16, 2007


Sue Me

Just before the Kansas school board voted 6-4 Tuesday to restore science to the state's science curriculum -- something that had been missing since right-wingers voted to salt the standards with ID-inspired pseudoscience in 2005 -- Ken Willard called for the board to go into executive session.

The executive session was not on the board's published agenda, and we wondered at the time if this was some last minute behind-the-scenes attempt by the creationist faction on the board to delay or confuse the vote on the standards.

Yesterday, an article by Barbara Hollingsworth in the Topeka Capitol Journal confirmed our suspicions:
Before voting, the state board briefly met with its attorney to discuss legal questions raised by Willard. He asked whether the state can endorse an idea that nature can be solely explained by material causes and whether the state can suppress information critical of evolution — two problems conservatives say the new standards would create, though opponents argue otherwise.
In other words, the right-wingers threatened a lawsuit if board moderates voted to removed long-discredited creationist claptrap from the standards.

This view is given added weight by comments made by ID Network leader -- and former shadow board member -- John Calvert. "I think the public has to be concerned enough," he told Hollingsworth, "to go to a lawyer and say, 'I want something done about this.'"

We can only speculate on whether a suit is anything more than bluster or, if filed, what sort of challenge to the standards such a suit might raise. However, a number of recent statements by Calvert give a hint at the likely legal arguments ID advocates will raise.

"Today you decide what to tell students about an ultimate question: Where does life come from?" Calvert said during the school board's public comments period before the vote. "The answer will shape their views about religion, ethics, morals and even government."

This claim, as Calvert knows, is factually incorrect. It will not hold up in court because the standards say nothing -- nothing at all -- about the origin of life. The reason for this is that scientists don't know how it happened. The standards stick to what we do know: the well-established evolutionary mechanisms of common descent: variation and natural selection.

We suspect the origins of life argument raised by Calvert is strictly for public consumption. A salve to creationists who -- much as Napoleon's army must have staggered out of Moscow -- are in full retreat following series of major defeats in Dover, Cobb County, Ohio, and now Kansas.

A recent news release from Calvert's ID Network hints at a more likely legal argument:

Many Kansans are concerned that proposed changes to Kansas Science Standards will cause Kansas Public Education to indoctrinate young children in Materialism, the philosophy that dominates Russian culture. This teaching model permits only material or natural causes to explain where we come from. It systematically excludes legitimate scientific controversies about materialistic theories of the origin of life (chemical evolution) and the origin of large scale changes in bio-diversity (macro-evolution)

Basing litigation on the charge that teaching evolution "excludes legitimate scientific controversies" would seem to be a non-starter. The Dover court heard these arguments and ruled that intelligent design is not science. The controversies it turns out -- including even Behe's famous bacterial flagellum -- are nothing more than recycled creationism. They are neither scientific or legitimate.

As we learned in Dover from Barbara Forrest's testimony on the intelligent design textbook Of Pandas and People, intelligent design itself is nothing more than recycled creationism.

That leaves one other option for any contemplated legal action. Evolution is religion. This view gains support from Calvert's news release which goes on to say:

Kansans are concerned because Materialism is the origins story that is the foundation for a variety of non-theistic religions and religious beliefs. Atheism and Humanism depend on a purposeless self-existing universe with life being the product of unguided evolutionary change.

If Kansans are truly concerned that Materialism is the origins story, as Cavlert asserts, then they are syntactically challenged. And, we can't help them in their battle with the English language anymore than we can straighten out their confusion about science. Perhaps Calvert meant to say that evolution serves as an alternative story of origins for some of us secular types.

As we've already noted, origins is not in the standards, so that leaves a possible challenge based on the evolution is religion argument. Unfortunately for Calvert, Willard, and their creationist supporters, this argument has already been litigated and found wanting.

In 1983, John E. Peloza, a high school biology teacher brought action against the Capistrano Unified School District challenging the district's requirement that he teach "evolutionism," which his complaint charged is a religious belief, as well as school district order barring him from discussing his religious beliefs with students.

The Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals summarized the allegations in Peloza's complaint this way:
Peloza is a biology teacher in a public high school, and is employed by the Capistrano Unified School District. He is being forced by the defendants (the school district, its trustees and individual teachers and others) to proselytize his students to a belief in "evolutionism" "under the guise of [its being] a valid scientific theory." Evolutionism is an historical, philosophical and religious belief system, but not a valid scientific theory. Evolutionism is one of "two world views on the subject of the origins of life and of the universe." The other is creationism" which also is a "religious belief system." "The belief system of evolutionism is based on the assumption that life and the universe evolved randomly and by chance and with no Creator involved in the process. The world view and belief system of creationism is based on the assumption that a Creator created all life and the entire universe." Peloza does not wish "to promote either philosophy or belief system in teaching his biology class." "The general acceptance of ... evolutionism in academic circles does not qualify it or validate it as a scientific theory." Peloza believes that the defendants seek to dismiss him due to his refusal to teach evolutionism. His first amendment rights have been abridged by interference with his right "to teach his students to differentiate between a philosophical, religious belief system on the one hand and a true scientific theory on the other."
Ever hear any of these arguments before?

The district court dismissed Peloza's claim stating:
Since the evolutionist theory is not a religion, to require an instructor to teach this theory is not a violation of the Establishment Clause.... Evolution is a scientific theory based on the gathering and studying of data, and modification of new data. It is an established scientific theory which is used as the basis for many areas of science. As scientific methods advance and become more accurate, the scientific community will revise the accepted theory to a more accurate explanation of life's origins. Plaintiffs assertions that the teaching of evolution would be a violation of the Establishment Clause is unfounded.
The Appeals Court agreed with the District Court and dismissed the complaint.

Edwards vs. Aguillard also takes up this complaint and rules on it, but this post is already too long so we'll save that for another day.

A suit over the teaching of origins will fail because there is nothing in the standards about the origin of life. The "scientific" criticisms of evolution that Abrams and Calvert wrote into the standards have been in the creationist brief since Scopes. They've been litigated repeatedly, most recently in Dover, and found wanting every time. Likewise, the charge that evolution is religion, the subject, of Calvert's most recent diatribes is a legal non-starter. They may sue anyway but, as always, they have no case.


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