The suit against Cobb County (GA) school district to remove anti-evolution disclaimers from biology textbooks is going well. I was able to attend part of the trial today and saw most of the testimony of CCSD’s lone witness, Dr. George Stickle, who oversees science education for the county. The Discovery Institute is apparently unhappy with the way things are going (Why Isn’t Cobb Co. School District’s Attorney Mounting More Vigorous Defense? and Can Cobb Co. Attorney Overcome Trial Mistakes in Time to Save School District?).
First some background. A little over two years ago, Cobb County, a suburb of Atlanta and the most affluent county in the state, began to issue newly adopted high school and middle school biology textbooks to students. Due to a petition drive by creationist parents, the school district affixed a disclaimer to the books that stated
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.
The superintendent did not want a disclaimer, but proposed an alternate wording in which students were encouraged to critically examine all ideas. The board overruled it and went with the above language, which they developed themselves. Six parents and the ACLU filed suit in federal court to remove the disclaimers as violating of the establishment clause of the US Constitution. (The main issue is quality science education, but there is little constitutional regress for that.)
In constitutional law, there is what is called the “three-pronged” Lemon Test. This standard holds that for a government action to satisfy the establishment clause it must
- have a secular purpose,
- have a primary effect that neither advances nor hinders religion,
- and not foster excessive entanglement of government with religion.
In pre-trial hearings, the judge ruled that religious motivations of parents could not implicate the school board as violating the first prong. The judge did find that there were substantial questions about the others and sent them on to trial. Thus only the latter two prongs are issues before the court in this week’s proceedings. This means that the plaintiffs are tasked with demonstrating that the disclaimers primarily advance religion and/or entangle public biology education with religion. Their strategy involves demonstrating that the disclaimers are wrong scientifically and hurt biology education in a way that appeases people with certain religious beliefs. CCSD’s strategy is to demonstrate that the disclaimers are scientifically acceptable and improve biology education.
Now Seth Cooper, the DI lawyer who prepared an amicus brief supporting the disclaimer, is upset at the way the lawyer for CCSD is handling the case. Cooper’s main complaint is that the defense never called any expert witnesses to cast doubt on evolution. Apparently Cooper is unaware that no expert witness testimony was presented at the trial. Last Friday the judge used a procedural technicality to disqualify all expert testimony. It is suspected that this was done to streamline the trial. Ken Miller, a well known biologist from Brown University, did not testify as an expert witness, but as coauthor of the most popular biology textbook used in Cobb schools. Carlos Moreno, a pathologist from Emory University, testified as a Cobb resident. Although scientists did testify for the plaintiffs, none did so as an expert.
Like I said earlier, I attended the trial today. The purpose of my drive to Atlanta was to assist in cross-examining a potential defense witness, Cobb resident Leon L. Combs, who was expected to testify against evolution and for alternatives. Combs is a chemistry professor at Kennesaw State University. He is a biblical literalist who thinks that “True Science” must agree with God’s “Absolute Truth” and that only Christians can make significant scientific progress. He also is planning on becoming a minister after he retires. However, from what I was told, Combs backed out of testifying this morning. Perhaps he learned that the plaintiffs were extremely well prepared to cross-examine him and got cold feet. (It’s not like you can’t predict what an anti-evolutionist will say and be ready for it.) It’s a shame, since I know y’all would enjoy reading the brutal cross examination that I helped prepare.
With Combs out, Stickle was left as the only witness for the defense. The lawyer for the school district tried to use Stickle to establish that evolutionary theory is questionable and should be questioned by the students. This was to support the strategy that the disclaimer helped education, thus satisfying the Lemon Test. Long story short, on cross the plaintiffs’ attorney got Stickle to admit that evolution was a fact and that new findings have not questioned evolution, only improved our understanding of it. Stickle even said that creationism can sound convincing, but looking into it reveals the distortions of real science. He cited two quote-mines by Strobel for this. I heard that one journalist remarked that Stickle, the defense’s only witness, was the plaintiffs’ best witness.
With nothing left but closing statements, the atmosphere does seem to favor the plaintiffs.