Three reflections on the evolution education scuffle in Collier County

Science textbooks unanimously adopted by the Collier County School Board are being challenged by the Florida Citizens Alliance (FLCA), a statewide organization led by retired IBM executive Keith Flaugh and Rick Stevens, Pastor of the Diplomat Wesleyan Church in Cape Coral, because of the treatment of evolution and climate change in the textbooks.

The textbooks adopted by the county’s school board were recommended by panels that included teachers, administrators, parents, community members and experts, according to the Naples Daily News.

According to the FLCA press release on the issue, “At least fifteen of the textbooks present evolution and man-made global warming as absolute fact. Both subjects remain far from settled in the scientific community and in the minds of the numerous Collier County residents expressing their concerns. Most importantly they violate Florida law (FS 1006.31.2) that requires textbooks to be ‘accurate, objective, balanced, non-inflammatory.'”

Just to be clear on my own position from the outset:  In science classes, public schools should teach explanations of the physical world around us that are naturalistic – that is, that don’t require a role for the supernatural.  That’s not just my opinion (fortunately).  In 2005, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania held in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board that the teaching of Intelligent Design in public schools was unconstitutional because it violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause.  Given that constraint, there is really no alternative but to teach that the universe is 14 billion years old and that life on Earth arose in all its diversity from natural processes.  There is no “balance” to attend to.  I helped write Florida’s science standards for K-12 schools in 2007-2008, and I reflected on that experience through the lens of my Christian faith here.

Given all of that, three particular issues have struck me while I’ve been watching the action in Collier County from 400 miles away:

FCLA’s Flaugh crossed a line of Christian civility by publicly questioning the faith of School Board Chair Terry

Keith Flaugh’s attack on the Christian faith of Collier County School Board Chair Roy Terry during his comments at the May 8 board meeting showed that his arguments are at least as much about a competition between Christian faith traditions as they are about any faith vs. science conflict.  Addressing Terry, Flaugh said “You profess to be a Christian and have sworn an oath to protect the U.S. Constitution and the Florida Constitution and the laws of this state….I offer a very short but sincere and heartfelt prayer on your behalf tonight, Mr. Terry. Dear God, I beseech you, please speak to your servant Roy Terry and help him understand that if he is truly committed to you as his savior that he needs to be true to your teachings.” (credit Brandon Haught at Florida Citizens for Science for this transcription)

Terry says in his official biography that he is a member of the United Methodist Church.  That church’s official statement on science says that “science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology.”

Chairman Terry was being perfectly true to his Christian faith, and Flaugh crossed a line of Christian civility that should not be crossed.

31% of Florida adults are Biblical literalists

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Survey, 31% of Florida adults believe that the Bible should be taken literally – including its account of creation in six literal days.  That’s about the same rate as the nation at large, so Florida isn’t particularly unusual.  It’s also an indication that we are not going to be able to teach our way out of this conflict in our science classrooms, since religious beliefs are set by authority figures within religious communities and not by school teachers.

The situation is different in the Catholic Church, where one-fifth of American Catholics are Biblical literalists despite the Church’s strong support for science (and even leadership in Big Bang cosmology) during the 20th and 21st centuries.  That situation could be addressed – but only if the church’s clergy decides it is a priority to do so.

Is the controversy over evolution education a reason to liquidate the traditional public school system?  

The Cato Institute’s Neal McCluskey uses conflicts like the one being discussed here to argue that there shouldn’t be any public schools.  In his chapter of Deep Commitments – the Past, Present and Future of Religious Liberty, McCluskey says that public schools cannot help religiously discriminating against somebody.  For example, making me and Roy Terry happy by teaching naturalistic science in a public school science classroom discriminates against Keith Flaugh.  And equivalently, if Keith Flaugh’s “balance” between evolution and Young Earth Creationism is taught then that would religiously discriminate against Terry and me.

McCluskey argues that the only complete resolution of this issue is for the government to liquidate the public school system.  Instead, the government would hand out vouchers or (he prefers) tax credit scholarships to every student and allow parents and students to use those vouchers or scholarships to pay tuition for private schools that reflect their values.  McCluskey’s vision is for a K-12 world very different world from the one in which we now live and learn.

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