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Garrett backs lessons on intelligent design
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Friday, September 30, 2005

Rep. Scott Garrett is calling on school boards throughout New Jersey to include lessons on intelligent design alongside evolution, on the heels of a Pennsylvania court case on the issue.

"Evolution is the predominant theory right now," said Garrett, R-Wantage. "[But] intelligent design is one that is apparently growing in some scientific communities, in academia. ... It seems that a school board should at least consider being tolerant and open to discussing both theories."

Fast facts

Evolution: The theory that life evolved over billions of years through mutation and natural selection.

Creationism: The Biblical belief that God created all life.

Intelligent design: The idea that life is so complex, it must be the work of an intelligent being.

Beyond expressing his views, the congressman said he would not advocate for a law mandating changes to the state curriculum. Last month, President Bush offered a similar view, urging local communities to consider teaching intelligent design, but shying away from intervening at the federal level.

In New Jersey, students must master some concepts of the theory of evolution beginning in the second grade.

"In science it's clear that evolution is the standard and must be taught," said Jay Doolan, director of the Office of Academic and Professional Standards at the state Department of Education. "The history standard, the social studies standards do allow for alternative discussion."

The state's science curriculum standards also include study of "science and society," which could mean lessons on societal controversy surrounding scientific principles, or the history of how such principles are developed, he said.

Awareness of intelligent design - which argues that living organisms are so complex they must have been created by an intelligent being - has grown as a federal district court in Pennsylvania hears arguments on the issue this week. Parents in the Dover, Pa., school district are asking the court to block the local school board's order that science teachers teach intelligent design and tell students the theory of evolution is flawed.

Nobel Prize winners speak out

Six Nobel laureates joined some 200 scientific and religious leaders Thursday in urging all 50 U.S. state governors to insist that their schools teach evolution and oppose religiously inspired alternatives.

The Nobel laureates - Peter Agre, Paul Berg, Mike Bishop, Gunter Blobel, H. Robert Horvitz and Harold Varmus - sent a letter to the governors warning that moves to teach "intelligent design" could leave U.S. students further behind their peers abroad, harming U.S. economic competitiveness.

"We certainly will not be able to close this gap if we substitute ideology for fact in our science classrooms," the group of about 100 scientists and 100 clergy wrote.

The letter was coordinated by an advocacy group known as DefCon: The Campaign to Defend the Constitution, which is fighting what it calls a rising threat of religious-based influence over public school curricula.

The effort was criticized by defenders of alternatives to evolution, such as the theory of "intelligent design," as an attempt by a scientific elite to quash dissent.

"It's an endless, endless process of peer pressure," said Edward Sisson, an attorney who assisted the Kansas Board of Education in adding intelligent design to its science curriculum.

A court in Harrisburg, Pa., is currently hearing the first case designed to test whether public schools can teach intelligent design, the belief that living organisms are so complex they must have been designed by a higher intelligence.

In a 1987 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that teaching creationism in public schools violates the separation between church and state. Ed Barocas, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said intelligent design is creationism under another name.

"Intelligent design, which has been rejected as not scientific by every reputable scientific organization, attempts to bring religious creationism back into science class," he said.

In New Jersey, the only official murmur on the issue came last week, when a parent asked the school board in the K-8 Bethlehem Township school district, in Hunterdon County, to include doubts about the theory of evolution in the middle school curriculum, said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association. No public decision has been made on that matter.

State standards set only a minimum of what must be taught in public classrooms. Local school boards may go beyond the state requirements. And, the state Legislature has required new elements be added to those standards, such as enhanced study of African-American history.

In the case of intelligent design, "I don't understand why there is so much turmoil," said state Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R- Demarest. "It would seem to me you could easily teach both theories. ... If the people who create the curriculum guidelines attempt to do something that seems to favor one theory to the exclusion of the other, then maybe the Legislature may get involved."

In recent years, about 10 New Jersey families have contacted the conservative social issues group League of American Families to discuss including alternative ideas on human evolution in classrooms, said executive director John Tomicki.

"It's not a front-burner issue," he said. "But it is slowly rising. ... There is little doubt that the publicity attending the lawsuit has raised interest."

The majority of parents who want their children to learn about creationism in school generally remove them from the public school system, opting for parochial school or home schooling, he said.

While evolution - the theory that life as it exists today is the result of mutation and natural selection over billions of years - may be a controversial issue in many communities, it is the foundation of modern biology and has virtually no critics among mainstream scientists. Most scientists contend that intelligent design is a thinly veiled version of creationism. They say it is a religious concept that should not be taught in public schools, and cannot be called a scientific theory because it cannot be tested by verifiable evidence.

Study of evolution is supported by the New Jersey Science Teachers Association, which last month was one of 60 signatories on an official statement by the National Congress of Science Education.

"Teachers of science should be supported in the teaching of evolution and the strong body of scientific evidence supporting it," the statement reads, "and not pressured to present non-scientific views."

But a survey this July found that two-thirds of Americans favor teaching creationism in public schools alongside evolution, with broad support among religious and secular citizens, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Research Center for People and the Press.

The poll also asked who should have the primary say in what is taught in class. Respondents more frequently favored parents and science teachers rather than school boards: 41 percent said parents should have a say over what students learn, 28 percent chose science teachers and 21 percent chose school boards.


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