Evolution Challenged in Colorado's Largest School District

This June an ad-hoc committee of the Jefferson County, Colorado schools, a Denver area school district, responded to Wheat Ridge High School sophomore Danny Phillips's complaints about evolution education by recommending that teachers stop using a videotape, "The Miracle of Life," and have it removed from the district resource center. Phillips had complained about more than the videotape, a film about human reproduction which opens by discussing the common ancestry of all life. He protested the school district's use of the Kendall-Hunt textbook Biological Science, an Ecological Approach (from the well known Biological Science Curriculum Studies "Green" series, and any teaching about evolution that is not "balanced" with creationism. He also asked that the district use the "intelligent design" textbook Of Pandas and People.

Like many an adult creationist, Phillips makes conciliatory remarks like, "I didn't want somebody learning the six-day creation of the earth," (Denver Post, August 3, 1996, p. Bl), but makes other statements that are unequivocally religious, like, "Why should the Bible, which the centuries have been unable to shake, be discarded in our schools for scientific works that have to be revised and corrected every few years?" (Rocky Mountain News, August 2,1996, p. Al) The committee did not recommend discontinuing the textbook nor changing district policy on teaching evolution.

Superintendent Wayne Carle accepted the committee's recommendation, writing to Phillips on June 21 that, "Committee members agree that the introductory comments in the video are poorly stated and scientifically refutable. The statements assume a factual rather than theoretical basis" (Rocky Mountain News, August 2, 1996). The committee had asked the video tape's producers to cut out the challenged material but, in contrast to McGraw Hill's response to a request to remove some pages from an earth science textbook (see NCSE Reports 16[1]:6), the producer refused.

While the committee's decision may have been perceived as a compromise, it didn't make anybody happy. Danny Phillips said he would appeal the decision. District science teachers said they wanted to continue using the film, originally produced for Nova, which some say is the best of its kind; many parents protested that they don't want their children denied an opportunity to see the film just because one student complained. The president of the Colorado Biology Teachers Association criticized the decision in a statement explaining that any scientific theory is "substantiated by an immense body of empirical evidence," (Denver Post, August 2,1996) and the Colorado ACLU sent the school board a letter explaining the legal objections to the decision.

NCSE's Colorado members are actively opposing any weakening of evolution education and, in cooperation with other organizations, asked the school board to reinstate the video. NCSE member Thomas Henry points out the district already has a policy that would have allowed Phillips to be excused from watching the video tape. Both Henry and a group of Jefferson County teachers, acting independently, suggested that teachers presenting the film can accompany it with appropriate instruction about the opening section, and the teachers presented Superintendent Carle with a draft teaching guide. Henry reports that public comment at the Board's meeting was impassioned, with strong presentations by creationists, church-separationists, and speakers concerned about science education. Public interest continues to be strong. Since Jefferson County is the state's largest school district, many observers think events there may predict what will happen elsewhere. It is certainly a test of the increasingly popular creationist strategy of insisting that evolution be taught as "only a theory."

[This article was prepared with the assistance of NCSE members Thomas Henry, Marc Williams, and Mark Boslough.]