Eddie Parker arrived at the State Board of Education hearing room with three books that he had stacked on his metal folding chair: The Holy Bible, The Warren Flew Debate, and Debating the Existence of God.
"It gives me no comfort to come before you," Parker told the 15-member board. "Don't allow people to tamper with children's minds that we are something less than human and to teach their ungodly evolution as a science."
The September 10 hearing was the second concerning the treatment of evolution in Texas high school biology textbooks; the board will decide on which textbooks to approve on November 10. `For coverage of the July hearing, see "Blinded by science ... fiction," Current, July 17-23`.
While the first hearing was dominated by those who favor keeping the textbooks as they are - based on science - last week, having previously underestimated the opposition, the creationists, fundamentalists, and Intelligent Design proponents packed the room - and a hostile room, at that.
On the surface, the argument appears to center on whether Texas textbooks adequately address evolution's strengths and weaknesses. But the subtext is more pernicious: the Religious Right, and proponents of "Intelligent Design" - a well-funded pseudo-science movement that believes an unseen hand from the cosmos is responsible for the universe - are using what critics say are bogus weaknesses to insert a religious agenda into public school textbooks. Moreover, the fundamentalist faction says evolution is the cause of social ills such as teen suicide and road rage.
"The acceptance of evolution is responsible for the degeneration of morals in society," said gospel preacher Mac Deever. "People are shooting at each other on the highway. Kids are being taught that they came from dirt. There is no accountability; they say, 'I'm just a product of evolutionary theory. Evolution made me what I am, can't help it.'"
High school biology teacher Allison Jackson complained that she had been warned by her principal to "avoid digging deeper into evolution for fear of upsetting parents." A parent objected after Jackson used supplemental texts and a guest speaker in a discussion about evolution.
The guest speaker? Ray Bohlin, a Discovery Institute fellow, the primary force behind Intelligent Design.
Mark Ramsey of the euphemistically named Texans for Better Science Education, claimed he was not lobbying to insert Intelligent Design, creationism, or the Bible into textbooks, although he had submitted written testimony criticizing evolution in the biology books that are up for board approval.
Conservative school board member Terri Leo coached Ramsey, noting, "You didn't include in your submissions any personal beliefs or religion, did you?"
But board member Dan Montgomery, who represents part of Bexar County, was not so easily cowed. "Do you belong to an organization dealing with Intelligent Design or creationism?"
"Define creationism," Ramsey retorted, followed by groans from the audience. After Montgomery's further probing, Ramsey admitted he built the Texans for Better Science Education Web site, which contains links to the Discovery Institute.
Liz Carpenter, former press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson, rolled up to the podium in her wheelchair. A man lowered the microphone for her, and she addressed the State Board of Education as only a seasoned political figure could: eloquently, but coyly.
"Really no one knows the whole truth on this planet, it is still unfolding," she said, adding she "was shaped by Christianity, the Methodist church, and the Democratic Party."
"I don't want education to be curtailed by extremists. In Texas, we're wide enough for all ideas. Let's not box them `students` in. Let's give them room to think and not water down science."
And as she wheeled herself out of the hearing room, many were - and still are - wondering which side Carpenter is on.
Throughout the 11-hour hearing, the board chairwoman repeatedly scolded the audience for clapping, laughing, or sighing heavily. Yet, behind the scenes a verbal scuffle broke out between sides. During a short break in the hearing, a man carrying a Discovery Institute folder sidled up to another man wearing a "Don't Mess With Textbooks" T-shirt.
"I assume you're part of a group that opposes the full treatment of science," said the man with the folder, puffing up his chest and stepping closer to the other man, whose back was at a wall. "You don't want strengths and weaknesses in there."
"Actually I want more strengths," the other man replied, his hands stuffed in his pockets.
"Are you an atheist?"
"I am an atheist, yes."
The man with the folder scowled, shook his head, and walked away.
Atheists weren't the only people stumping for evolution. Roger Paynter, theist and pastor of the First Baptist Church of Austin, broke with the flock of fundamentalists, saying, "Science is not here to make faith statements. You can't prove God in a scientific experiment. Evolution is not a threat to God nor is it new to him." •
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