Creationists Embarrassed in Oklahoma

Creation Evolution Journal
Title: 
Creationists Embarrassed in Oklahoma
Author(s): 
Frank J. Sonleitner
Volume: 
2
Number: 
2
Quarter: 
Spring
Page(s): 
23-27
Year: 
1981

This is an account of some of the events surrounding a recent creation-evo, lution bill that was introduced into the Oklahoma State Legislature and its defeat in the House Common Education Committee. The bill was essentially a product of the Institute for Creation Research in San Diego, California, a group that insists it does not engage in promoting creation legislation. Most of sections 4, 6, 8, 10, and 11 of the bill came from attorney Wendell R. Bird's model resolution, which was published in the May 1979 Acts & Facts, an ICR publicaton. Section 3, paragraphs 1 and 2, defining creation-s, cience, were taken directly from Bird's model law, which is presently being pushed nationwide by Paul Ellwanger's Citizens for Fairness in Education, a South Carolina group. At the public hearing on the new legislation, I learned that Wendell Bird had, in fact, written this bill.

The bill was introduced into the State House of Representatives on January 22, 1981. By coincidence, on that same day, several of us from the University of Oklahoma at Norman (OU) met with the vice-chairman, several committee members, and some of the research staff to voice our objections to the bill. Four of us were involved: myself (a population ecologist), Professor Gerald Braver (geneticist), Associate Professor Gary Schnell (numerical taxonomist)—all from the Department of Zoology—and Professor John Wickham (geologist and chairman of the Department of Geology and Geophysics). I had previously prepared twelve pages of typewritten documentation covering: (1) a summary of the reasons for not teaching creationism in the public schools, (2) the scientific method, (3) an outline of the logical structure of the theory of evolution, (4) the scope of creation science, (5) the biblical nature of the creation model, and (6) several highly detailed and documented examples of the incorrect and distorted material that the creationists use as "scientific evidence." Four copies of this report were given to the committee at this meeting. (I had received my first issues of Creation/Evolution the day before. I later sent the committee copies of the Edwords article from Issue I and the Weinberg and Kraus articles from Issue II.)

- page 24 -

In the period that followed, the news media—especially radio and television—presented, almost exclusively, the creationist side. Moral Majority politicians made scientific pronouncements on radio talk shows and television news spots, and Ed Blick and John Morris of ICR made at least one television news interview each. Nonetheless, one television news team was interested in interviewing our group, but it was nearly two weeks and many phone calls before they finally came. The interview was held off campus at the Lutheran Student Center. In addition to the original four scientists, three ministers joined us to oppose the bill: Don Gibson (United Campus Christian Fellowship), David Klumpp (University Lutheran Chapel and Student Center), and Hugh Jeffers (a Presbyterian minister, lecturer, and administrative assistant in the College of Education). About five minutes of tape were made containing statements by four of us. Only about thirty seconds was actually aired on the five o'clock news, Monday, February 2, 1981, and that was followed immediately by an interview with "another OU professor," John Morris! At the Education Committee public hearing, the chairman of the committee, Jim Fried, chided the news media for misleading the public into believing that the bill would provide for the teaching of biblical creation in the schools when, in fact, it specifically prohibited that.

A subcommitte held a meeting on the bill on Tuesday, February, 3, and the full committee held the public hearing on Wednesday, February 4. Immediately following the public hearing, they debated on the bill for nearly two hours, after which they voted twenty to four to "report progress," which, for all practical purposes, amounted to killing the bill in committee.

The hearing was held in a small conference room at the State Capitol in Oklahoma City that barely held the twenty-six members, the people wishing to testify, and the crews of the three commercial television channels and the PBS channel. Although twenty or more people had put their names on the agenda to speak, including two professional atheists, the committee chairman (who was determined to squash the bill) only allowed about ten people to speak.

The main testimony in favor of the bill was given by the ICR pros: Ed Blick (OU professor of engineering), John Morris (OU assistant professor of geological engineering), and Wendell Bird (ICR lawyer). They presented the usual ICR propaganda. In addition, an Oklahoma biology teacher, who looked more like a football coach, claimed that evolution was given undue emphasis in his school, and a Tulsa theologian, who was ostensibly testifying in favor of the bill, in fact gave a long series of theological and religious objections to it!

The seven people previously mentioned in our group, along with two others, Professor John Renner (well-known researcher on science education in the OU School of Education) and zoology Professor Emeritus Paul David, came to the hearing prepared to give oral presentations. Only three—Wickham, David, and myself—were actually called upon to speak at the hearing. We each had three minutes. Wickham said that the bill would have an adverse effect on science education and that it represented a restricted view of creation; David pointed out that the bill was probably unconstitutional because it gave preferential treatment to fundamentalist Christian beliefs; while I attacked Section 4, paragraph 1, of the bill, which claimed that the study of origins was not science because no one was present to observe when life first appeared. A Tulsa school teacher also testified against the bill.

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Up to this point, the public hearing was "dull as dishwater." Then, the "organized (Democratic) committee opposition" to the bill called on their "star witness," Leroy Taylor, superintendent of Liberty School in Sequoyah County on the Arkansas border, who gave a theatrical performance in the role of the "good-ol'-down-home-country-boy school teacher." He cracked jokes, poked fun at the legislature, and asked them to "leave us alone—we know what we're doing. We're not teaching evolution—we're teaching biblical creation." Needless to say, he was featured in all the television coverage of the hearing.

Taylor set the stage for the committee debate on the bill. The chairman decided not to consider any of the proposed amendments such as requiring teaching of biblical creation, the resurrection of Jesus, Hindu science (modified), flat-earth science, and so forth, and proceeded directly to debate on the bill. Only three committee members, including the main author of the bill, wanted to speak in favor of it, while many more, including the chairman and vice-chairman of the committee, wished to speak against it. And the opposition "hoisted the creationists by their own petard"; they out-Baptisted the Baptists! To summarize, they claimed the following:

1. This bill was an example of big government telling the local school boards what to do. And it was coming from a party that had just won a big election on a promise to do away with big government. If any parents had any complaints, they should go to their local school board.

2. This bill actually outlawed teaching biblical creation, because it required that, if creation was going to be taught, it must be taught as a mere scientific theory (in the pejorative sense of the word), which requires evidence and verification. Representative Gray (Democrat) quoted from the Bliss book, Origins, Two Models: Evolution Creation, page v, where the author says that his book will develop "your ability to think logically, to search for data and its meaning, and to demand verification." He then imagined how, on a Sunday afternoon, while the family was sitting on the back porch and the father or minister was telling the story of Jonah and the Whale or the resurrection of Jesus, the children would demand verification, as they were taught to do in school. He then rejected the idea of teaching creation as a science. Biblical creation should be taught as a fact that was to be accepted on faith.

3. In most cases in Oklahoma where only one theory of origins was being taught, it was creation, not evolution, that was presented. Therefore, this was an evolution bill that would require all those schools to teach evolution. (The legislative authors of the bill apparently swallowed hook-line-and-sinker the ICR propaganda that evolution pervades all the public schools. They had no evidence to back up this view except that very few of the current biology textbooks mentioned creation.)

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Overlooking the strong likelihood that much of this was a carefully contrived and rehearsed ploy to defeat the bill, the above three points are true. And people working against equal-time-for-creation-science bills might find them useful arguments in staunchly fundamentalist states. (A scientist could bolster such arguments by pointing out that, if creation was going to be taught as a science, it would have to obey all the rules of scientific inquiry. All miracles would have to go. Everything would have to be explained in terms of detailed naturalistic mechanisms that could be tested and falsified. And, if this were done by using the two-models approach in an unbiased, accurate, and rationally consistent manner, the outcome would be the same as it was historically: the creation model would be falsified.)

Imagine those orators, all claiming to be upstanding, fundamentalist Christians and trying to out do William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes trial! The PBS television channel broadcast most of this debate the following Sunday night on its program, "Legislative Week in Review." But they left out one of the most entertaining parts. Representative Duckett (Democrat) was pleading for the bill, and he told a story that went something like this: "I visited the zoo last weekend, and while I was walking through the Primate House I heard a voice say, 'Please pass the bill.' I was surprised when I looked around, because there wasn't anyone there. Then I realized that one of the monkeys in a cage was talking to me. 'Why do you want that bill passed?' I asked him. 'We don't want your children to be taught that they are descended from us. After all, we don't fight wars, drop atom bombs, and pollute the environment! Please pass the bill.' " When Duckett was finished, he yielded to Representative Cox (Democrat) for a question. Cox, a black man from Oklahoma City who previously had spoken against the bill by waving his Bible and telling how he learned his religion at his mother's knee, held out his Bible to Duckett and asked, "Will you put your hand on this book and swear that that monkey spoke to you?" It brought down the house. (Several of us were reminded of Oral Roberts who recently claimed to have had a vision of a nine-hundred-foot-tall Jesus who had spoken to him.)

To be fair, it must be mentioned that other arguments against the bill were voiced: (1) that it would give legitimacy to a pseudoscience that couldn't get respectability on its own in the scientific community, and (2) that the astrologers and flat-earthers would soon be demanding similar laws.

I was pleased at the outcome of the meeting, especially because the "scientific" creationists were rejected on religious grounds. I'm sure they had imagined that Oklahoma, with its fundamentalist Christian population and Moral Majority politicians, would be a shoo-in to pass this legislation. The people from OU were delighted to see Ed Blick sneak out of the meeting early. Morris and Bird were sitting too far in front to escape; they had to stay there to the bitter end, looking quite uncomfortable and dismayed. Even the authors of the bill were apologizing for it and admitting that it needed a great deal of revision. And one freshman representative asked that his coauthorship of the bill be withdrawn!

About the Author(s): 

Frank Sonleitner is an associate professor of zoology at the University of Oklahoma at Norman.

Copyright 1981 by Frank J. Sonleitner

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.