God's Country by Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster

The ghost of William Jennings Bryan smiles on Aiken, S.C. -- where the debate between evolution and creationism still rages

 

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Bradley next recognized William Burkhalter, the school board attorney, who slowly and carefully began to read a statement. "At the request of The Aiken County Board of Education, a comprehensive review of pertinent state constitutional, statutory, and regulatory authority was undertaken," he said. "This research has been focused on the request that the District science curriculum should teach both evolution and creationism or teach neither. Based on a thoughtful analysis of all such legal authority we find no reason to recommend any change."

Wilson audibly sighed. "To teach neither," Burkhalter continued, "clearly fails to follow the minimum requirements and testing standards provided for school districts in South Carolina by the State Board of Education. To teach both, would unequivocally violate the constitutional mandate that public school maintain neutrality regarding matters of religion, as concluded by numerous Supreme Court and federal cases which have dealt decisively with these issues."

Wilson planted his right hand on his forehead and looked around at the gathering in amazement. But Burkhalter's report contained more. Citing the legal history of the issue, the attorney retold Scopes and the 1968 Supreme Court decision which found statutes like Tennessee's unconstitutional. He then cited all the various compromises that have been tried, including the teaching of Creation Science along with evolution (rejected in Edwards v. Aguillard, 1987), the offering of disclaimers at the outset of instruction saying that evolution is not intended to influence or dissuade Biblical teaching (rejected in Freiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education, 1999). He examined the idea that a prohibition of the teacher's right to teach Creationism is an infringement of academic freedoms (dismissed in Webster v. New Lenox) and, finally, the argument that the ban on Creation Science was a violation of a teacher's right to free speech (also rejected, in Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District.)

The High Court had been asked repeatedly to find a Constitutional basis upon which Creationism advocates could amend the teaching of evolution to promote their values and repeatedly the justices had come down on the side of those who wished to protect the schools from even a whisper of religious dogma. To challenge such a wealth of case law, said Burkhalter, would be foolhardy for it would mire the county in a protracted and costly legal battle that it would have little chance of winning.

Wilson hurriedly left the room, muttering that the surprise delivery of the announcement had been like "the attack on Pearl Harbor." But within a few minutes he had taken the board answer in stride and begun to think of new strategies. He would demand a formal hearing on the matter, he would file a grievance, he would take his argument to the people of the town, something - anything - to see to it that the fight continues.

And indeed, one year later there he was again at 1000 Brookhaven Drive, listening to the prayer and reciting the pledge, waiting while a few laudatory remarks about school achievements were read. Then, when John Bradley asked for community comment, Wilson, text in hand, quietly walked forward. "We are in a moral crisis," he said, "the origin of which can be found in our high school biology classes."

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