In a controversial decision virtually guaranteed to increase resentment between scientists, educators, fundamentalists and constitutional rights buffs, United States District Court Judge Clarence Cooper ruled against the Cobb County School Board on January 13th that the inclusion of a religiously neutral disclaimer sticker in school science textbooks was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. Prompted by the ACLU, Georgia Citizens for Integrity in Science Education (GCISE) and even former President Jimmy Carter, the lawsuit, filed by Jeffrey Selman and four other parents, is an ongoing expression of the religio-political battle raging in education, religion, science and civil liberties.
Albeit in violation, according to Judge Cooper, the 33-word disclaimer added by Cobb County public school officials in 2002 is undeniably neutral with regard to religion. The disclaimer itself reads, “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.”
Critics were quick to jump on the apparent paradox: how can a religiously neutral disclaimer be declared an endorsement of religion? Based on a three-tier test designed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971, Cooper ruled that although religiously neutral, the mere possibility of a “reasonable, informed observer” to interpret the sticker as an endorsement of religion renders it unconstitutional.
Unfortunately, this is a matter of conjecture and herein lays one crucial underpinning of the debate: whether our judicial rulings proceed from fact or interpretation. The vague wording of this second-tier guideline is such that conformity to fact or actuality becomes secondary at best, and in this vacuum, a nested interpretation becomes the measure of truth: the magistrate’s interpretation of what the “reasonable, informed observer” may actually interpret. However likely interpretations may or may not be, they do vary from one individual to the next, and critics argue that any courtroom ruling over whether a statement might endorse a particular religion to a "reasonable, informed observer" is pure speculation without a significant polling of a reasonable, informed control group.
Further confusing and fueling to the controversy is a second paradox in Cooper’s ruling that has yet to be explained. Although he ruled the disclaimer itself religiously neutral, in his 44-page decision he wrote that the stickers send “…a message that the school board agrees with the beliefs of Christian fundamentalists and creationists.” If the disclaimer contains no endorsement, from whence could such an inference spring?
In spite of the disclaimer’s bona fide lack of religious endorsement, attorney Michael Manely exalted the ruling, declaring that students will “…now be permitted to learn science unadulterated by religious dogma.” But there’s no mention of God, Jesus, the Holy Virgin or anything even remotely construable as religious dogma.
School officials testified that they had not received any increase in complaints since the disclaimer’s inclusion, and Cobb County Public Schools Attorney Linwood Gunn argued that the stickers were supportive of inter-institutional tolerance, stating,
“Science and religion are related and they’re not mutually exclusive…This sticker was an effort to get past that conflict and to teach good science.”
Gunn further commented that the original intent of the disclaimer was an effort to promote comfort when students hold beliefs that may conflict with curricula, and this statement seems to be heading towards preference of religions with alternative creation stories.
Appointed by President Clinton to the Northern District Court in 1994, Cooper further ruled that the disclaimer sticker was “denigrating” towards Darwin’s general theory. Houghton Mifflin defines ‘denigrate’ as any measure intended to “deny the validity or importance of, blacken, belittle or defame.” The question of whether the disclaimer actually denigrates the theory is open to interpretation, and as cited Cooper’s reasoning remains unclear.
Less-polarized critics simply argued that the stickers were unnecessarily redundant, claiming the schoolbook includes a similar disclaimer in the original text. On this point Cooper asked a valid question: “Why put a sticker on the book when that’s already in the book?”
A similar dispute is currently deadlocked in Dover, PA over whether or not students have the right to learn about “intelligent design.”
The question of life’s origin is both scientific and theological. Scholars and anthropologists note that creationist cosmologies are not inherently Christian. They are documented concepts of every major world religion since the inception of writing and modern culture around 8,000 bce, and many predate the Hebrew writings of Genesis. The importance of educating a religiously diverse and multicultural population about its Hindu, Christian, Muslim or Pagan roots in the effort to promote tolerance and meaningful cooperation cannot be understated, as it encourages exploration of our fundamental human interconnectedness.