A school board in Ohio is holding a hearing examining claims that an eighth-grade science teacher kept a Bible on his desk, taught creationism and burned crosses on students’ arms. A third-grader teacher in California is being investigated for criticizing evolution, informing her students that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny do not exist, and advocating a belief in God. A school board in North Carolina has sparked controversy for considering the teaching of creationism.
These three conflicts represent the latest flashpoints in the ongoing debate over the teaching of evolution, creationism and intelligent design in public schools. Each case demonstrates the volatility of bringing religion into public classrooms.
Eighth-grade science teacher John Freshwater was suspended without pay in June by the school board of Mount Vernon, Ohio, after several months of controversy. Last December, a student claimed suffering pain after Freshwater used a high-frequency generator to burn a cross on the student’s left arm. Red dots allegedly remained on the student’s arm for three or four weeks.
Additional complaints against Freshwater soon followed. He was ordered by school administrators not to keep a Bible on his desk, but refused to comply. He has also been accused of teaching creationism, discussing Christianity in class, and giving extra credit to students for memorizing Bible verses.
A hearing to determine if Freshwater should be fired included two days of testimony last week and will resume at the end of the month. Freshwater denies many of the accusations and claims that the attacks are “nothing short of another blatant attack on free-speech rights.” His supporters started a Web site, BibleOnTheDesk.com, to offer their support.
At first, Freshwater denied branding any students with a device intended to test gases and which the manufacturer warns never to use on human skin. Now, Freshwater admits to using the device on more than 600 students over 16 years, but claims it is harmless, that many of the students volunteered, and that he was making an “x” and not a cross.
Freshwater is accused of having attacked the idea of evolution and pointing students to AnswersinGenesis.com, a Web site run by Ken Ham, a Christian critic of evolution. Freshwater had asked the school board in 2003 for permission to “critically examine” evolution in classes, but his request was denied.
Across the country, in Berkley, Calif., third-grade teacher Gwen Martin has been on personal leave since last September after parents complained that she was teaching creationism and encouraging belief in God.
In addition to listing evolution and the big-bang theory as fiction, Martin allegedly also said Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Harry Potter were fictitious, which caused some of her students to cry. Martin then declared that God was an example of non-fiction.
Berkeley Board of Education President John Selawsky expressed his surprise that a teacher in the district would promote creationism and deny evolution. Martin is in her first year as a teacher in the district.
“This is the first time in my eight years as a board member that I have heard of allegations of teaching creationism and denying evolution,” said Selawsky. “You certainly don’t hear about this in the Bay Area. In places like Kansas it’s an ongoing battle and a big political issue. There are strict stipulations in the state Education Code about what public school teachers can or cannot do.”
On the other coast, the school board of Brunswick County in North Carolina is considering a proposal to teach creationism in classes. However, state restrictions might prevent them from enacting their proposal. The school board will consider the idea further at its October meeting.
At its September meeting, all board members present and many in the audience offered their strong support for teaching creationism and criticism of evolution, although they seemed to be unsure as to what was allowed. In North Carolina, creationism cannot be taught in a science or required course, but may be covered in an elective class.
The parent who sparked the initial discussion, Joel Fanti, is a member of a Southern Baptist congregation, New Beginnings Community Church in Shallotte. His pastor, Brad Ferguson, expressed his support for Fanti’s proposal.
“There is some scientific evidence supporting creationism,” said Ferguson. “Kids should be presented both sides. You can’t isolate disciplines. Science and faith ”they go together.”
Although the most famous dispute over the teaching of evolution in public schools ”the “Scopes Monkey Trial” ”occurred more than 80 years ago, conflicts continue to arise. Recent controversies have included a back-and-forth struggle in the Kansas State Board of Education and the Dover, Penn. trial over the teaching of “intelligent design.”
A study earlier this year indicated that evolution was being taught less in public schools across the nation. Last week, leaders of the 21st Century Science Coalition announced they would be monitoring new teaching guidelines being developed by the Texas Education Agency. The group, which claims to represent more than 800 scientists, opposes a proposal that could result in science teachers in the state teaching alternatives to evolution, including creationism.
Richard Duhrkopf, who is part of the Coalition, teaches introductory biology at Baylor University and is one of more than a dozen science professors at the Baptist school to sign the Coalition’s statement. He expressed his opposition to teaching creationism as science, contending that creationist theories “just don’t make the grade as science, and to teach them would be to teach a lie to our students.”
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.
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Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.