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Cobb County Disclaimer Goes to Trial

Cobb County, Georgia, has been the site of controversy over creationism and evolution off and on for decades. On November 8, 2004, a lawsuit began in the most recent chapter of this district's dissatisfaction with the teaching of evolution.

Selman et al. v. Cobb County School District et al. is being heard in the Atlanta Division of the US District Court of the Northern District of Georgia. Plaintiff Jeffrey Selman is suing the Cobb County School District (CCSD) for injunctive relief over an antievolution disclaimer that the district required be inserted into textbooks. The wording of the disclaimer is:

This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.
The controversy began in the spring of 2002 when the CCSD adopted high school textbooks which included solid coverage of evolution, and the textbook committee, fearful of public reaction to students being taught "so much" evolution, sought to have a disclaimer put into the books that would defuse predicted parental response.

The plaintiffs complain that the disclaimer restricts the teaching of evolution because it singles out evolution for special treatment from all other scientific theories. They also complain that the result of the disclaimer will be the teaching of creationism. The CCSD claims that it is only trying to assuage parental concerns about evolution in the new textbook. However, in depositions, school board members cited intelligent design as an "alternate scientific theory" to evolution, and claim that it could be taught.

Disclaimers about evolution are a popular antievolution strategy, and most of them follow the "theory, not fact" approach seen in the CCSD disclaimer. Texas required a disclaimer in its biology books from 1974 until 1984 which required that books refer to evolution as "a theory and not to a verified fact". Alabama had a disclaimer in its biology textbooks from 1996 to 2001 which has been widely cloned, and was proposed in neighboring states and as far away as the state of Washington, though in these other states it was not instituted. In 2001, this disclaimer was replaced with a modified one which avoided some of the problems with its ancestor. Both disclaimers can be found here.

An oral disclaimer to be read to students was struck down in 1997 in Federal District Court in Louisiana in Freiler v. Tangipahoa as promoting a sectarian religious ideology. This disclaimer included the suggestion that students should not be dissuaded from "the Biblical concept of creation." The specifically religious message of the Tangipahoa school district was the cause of its disclaimer being struck down. The more recent CCSD disclaimer avoids overtly religious statements such as doomed the Tangipahoa one. A link to the Freiler case can be found here, along with other creationism/evolution cases.

NCSE will keep you informed. An article on the Selman case can be found here.