NCSE Evolution Education Update for 2009/05/15
(by NCSE Deputy Director Glenn Branch)
Dear Friends of NCSE, NCSE urged the federal government to promote and protect scientific integrity, particularly with reference to its informal education projects. And a teacher's description of creationism as "superstitious nonsense" was ruled to be unconstitutional by a federal court.
NCSE ENCOURAGES FEDERAL SCIENTIFIC INTEGRITY NCSE recently offered its advice on ways the federal government can promote and protect scientific integrity. The comment will be considered as presidential science advisor John Holdren and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) develop regulations implementing President Obama's March 9, 2009, memorandum ordering federal agencies to "ensur[e] the highest level of integrity in all aspects of the executive branch's involvement with scientific and technological processes." The order specifically asks the OSTP to recommend regulations protecting scientific staff from political litmus tests in hiring and firing, ensuring scientific integrity of internal processes, requiring that information used in policy-making "be subject to well-established scientific processes, including peer review where appropriate," making scientific findings publicly available, and generally "ensur[ing] the integrity of scientific and technological information and processes on which the agency relies in its decisionmaking or otherwise uses or prepares." NCSE's comment to the OSTP focuses on educational materials used in informal education at federal facilities, citing reports of creationist books offered for sale at Grand Canyon National Park bookstores and of a political appointee at NASA demanding that the Big Bang be called a "theory" on public websites because "it is not proven fact; it is opinion." It also expresses concern about reports of creationism being taught at schools directly administered by the federal government. The comment concludes: "Establishing clear policies protecting the accuracy of formal and informal educational content provided by the federal government is necessary to ensure the long-term integrity of science. Such content prepares the next generation of federal scientists, and is vital to constituents as they evaluate science-based policies. In particular, agencies should develop policies that provide for scientists and educators to peer review material and to protect potentially controversial topics from political or religious pressure." For the complete text of NCSE's comment, visit: http://ncseweb.org/news/2009/05/ncse-encourages-federal-scientific-integrity-004777 For the president's memorandum, visit: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Memorandum-for-the-Heads-of-Executive-Departments-and-Agencies-3-9-09/ For the OSTP's call for comments, visit: http://blog.ostp.gov/2009/04/22/presidential-memo-on-scientific-integrity-request-for-comment For NCSE's most recent update of events at Grand Canyon National Park, visit: http://ncseweb.org/rncse/27/3-4/renewed-concern-creationism-at-grand-canyon-national-park For NCSE's report on the situation at NASA, visit: http://ncseweb.org/news/2006/02/creationist-interference-at-nasa-00937 VERDICT AGAINST CRITIC OF CREATIONISM A teacher's description of creationism as "superstitious nonsense" was ruled to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by a federal judge in a decision in C. F. et al. v. Capistrano Unified School District et al., issued on May 1, 2009. James Corbett, a twenty-year teacher at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, California, was accused by a student, Chad Farnan, of "repeatedly promoting hostility toward Christians in class and advocating 'irreligion over religion' in violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause," according to the Orange County Register (May 1, 2009). "Farnan's lawsuit had cited more than 20 inflammatory statements attributed to Corbett, including 'Conservatives don't want women to avoid pregnancies -- that's interfering with God's work' and 'When you pray for divine intervention, you're hoping that the spaghetti monster will help you get what you want.'" In his decision in the case, however, Judge James Selna of the United States District Court, Central District Court of California, identified only one of the statements as constitutionally impermissible, writing: *** The Court turns first to Corbett's statement regarding John Peloza ... This statement presents the closest question for the Court in assessing secular purpose. Peloza apparently brought suit against Corbett because Corbett was the advisor to a student newspaper which ran an article suggesting that Peloza was teaching religion rather than science in his classroom. ... Corbett explained to his class that Peloza, a teacher, "was not telling the kids [Peloza's students] the scientific truth about evolution." ... Corbett also told his students that, in response to a request to give Peloza space in the newspaper to present his point of view, Corbett stated, "I will not leave John Peloza alone to propagandize kids with this religious, superstitious nonsense." ... One could argue that Corbett meant that Peloza should not be presenting his religious ideas to students or that Peloza was presenting faulty science to the students. But there is more to the statement: Corbett states an unequivocal belief that creationism is "superstitious nonsense." The Court cannot discern a legitimate secular purpose in this statement, even when considered in context. The statement therefore constitutes improper disapproval of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause. *** Selna ended his decision by writing, "The Supreme Court's comments with regard to governmental promotion of religion apply with equal force where the government disapproves of religion ... The ruling today protects Farnan, but also protects teachers like Corbett in carrying out their teaching duties." Corbett was evidently describing Peloza's lawsuit against the Capistrano Unified School District, arguing that the district and its trustees and employees were violating his constitutional rights by "pressuring and requiring him to teach evolutionism, a religious belief system, as a valid scientific theory"; Corbett was among the named defendants. The lawsuit failed in the United States District Court, Central District Court of California, and then in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which specifically endorsed the district court's statement, "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." Opinion is predictably divided about the verdict. Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Michigan, told the Orange County Register (May 5, 2009), "I'm not sure [Judge Selna] drew the line in the right place ... The line can be fine sometimes. But here we have a teacher who wasn't interested in finding the line, and the judge manages to explain away all but one of the teacher's comments," while Rachel Moran, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, said, "What it means is that if you're a teacher, your liability can turn on a single sentence ... Teachers can avoid this by not talking about these issues at all, but that has a chilling effect," and John Eastman, a law professor at Chapman University, said, "School districts are routinely sued for making one statement that favors a religion ... The rules apply both ways here." Corbett himself told the alternative OC Weekly (May 6, 2009), "I expected to win. I expected the whole case would be thrown out." But, the newspaper added, "after rereading it and thinking about it, he says he's come to different conclusions with regard to the judgments in his favor. 'I think it's a victory for the right of teachers to provoke students into thinking,' he says." He expressed concern, however, about the possible chilling effect of the verdict, commenting, "You'd almost have to survey the class to find out what their beliefs are so you wouldn't insult anyone." Corbett hopes to appeal the decision. In the meantime, fees and damages have yet to be determined; the Orange County Register (May 5, 2009) reported, "Farnan plans to ask for attorneys' fees, nominal damages and a court injunction prohibiting Corbett from violating the establishment clause again." For the stories in the Orange County Register, visit: http://www.ocregister.com/articles/corbett-religion-court-2387684-farnan-selna http://www.ocregister.com/articles/corbett-law-court-2394203-teacher-selna For the story in the OC Weekly, visit: http://www.ocweekly.com/2009-05-07/news/james-corbett For court documents from C. F. v. Capistrano, visit: http://ncseweb.org/creationism/legal/c-f-v-capistrano-usd For court documents from Peloza v. Capistrano, visit: http://ncseweb.org/creationism/legal/peloza-v-capistrano-usd Thanks for reading! And don't forget to visit NCSE's website -- http://www.ncseweb.org -- where you can always find the latest news on evolution education and threats to it. -- Sincerely, Glenn Branch Deputy Director National Center for Science Education, Inc. 420 40th Street, Suite 2 Oakland, CA 94609-2509 510-601-7203 x310 fax: 510-601-7204 800-290-6006 firstname.lastname@example.org http://ncseweb.org Eugenie C. Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism -- now in its second edition! http://ncseweb.org/evc Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools http://ncseweb.org/nioc NCSE's work is supported by its members. Join today! http://ncseweb.org/membership