Defenders of Darwin won a victory in Georgia this week when a federal district judge in Atlanta ordered a county school board to remove stickers from textbooks that question the validity of evolutionary theory.
In 2002, the school board of Cobb County, an Atlanta suburb and the second-largest school system in Georgia, ordered that stickers be pasted on high school biology textbooks that describe evolution as "a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things" and advising that the material should be "critically considered." A group of parents brought suit shortly afterwards, claiming the stickers violated the separation of church and state. In the opinion, dated 13 January, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia noted that describing evolution "as a theory rather than a fact" is language used by Christian fundamentalists and creationists, and clearly identifies the school board as being on the side of "religiously-motivated individuals." Judge Clarence Cooper ordered the immediate removal of the stickers.
School board officials have 30 days to appeal. Wes McCoy, chair of the science department at North Cobb High School in Kennesaw, says the county has told schools not to remove the stickers in the interim. McCoy says he's "thrilled" the court's decision. By implying that "evolution is not a particularly reliable notion" he says the disclaimer has caused confusion in students' minds about the meaning of "fact" and "theory." He adds that "more students than ever now want us to simply not teach evolution anymore 'since so many people disagree with it.'"
Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, calls the ruling "very encouraging." She notes that it was fairly narrow since it does not rule out all disclaimers relating to evolution. But "this should at least discourage 'theory not fact' type disclaimers." And she says it should help plaintiffs in another lawsuit, in Dover, Pennsylvania, who are opposing a new requirement that high school students discuss "problems" with Darwinism and consider "other theories of evolution including ... intelligent design."
The Discovery Institute of Seattle, Washington, which promotes Intelligent Design, says it disagrees with the invalidation of the sticker. However, it is pleased with a statement by the judge that the sticker "fosters critical thinking" by encouraging students to learn about evolution and make their own assessment regarding its merit.