Lawsuit Halts ID in Philosophy Class: Will it Backfire?
Exclusive Picture this: a small community high school nestled in the mountains far north of the big city of Los Angeles. A gentle, silver-haired schoolteacher who wouldn’t hurt a fly, who coaches soccer, loves teenagers and takes her time-consuming and non-lucrative job, which she has done for many years, seriously, and is well liked by students. A trailer outfitted as a classroom next to the agricultural center, with a bed sheet as a projection screen, a small projector, a whiteboard and some desks. A rooster crowing outside. 13 students from ordinary American families who live in a small mountain town (population 2348) with no mall, one main street, and two hardware stores. This little classroom ignited a national legal firestorm that reverberated briefly around the country, and caught the attention of reporters as far away as Romania and India. What happened? Why did it become the subject of a documentary in progress? Simply put: one teacher decided to offer an elective class called “Philosophy of Design” that included discussions of intelligent design and critical thinking about evolution.
Though this story began in December, it was in the news all month. You can read about it on CBS News, the LA Times, the Tri-Valley Herald, ABC News, the Tacoma News Tribune, LiveScience, MSNBC #1 and #2, and Fox News. They will tell you that the school was sued by Americans United for Separation of Church and State on the grounds that the class violated constitutional prohibitions against teaching creationism in public schools, and that a group of parents joined in the suit, and that the school acquiesced and agreed to stop the class. Another victory, in other words, for science over religion. Even the pro-ID Discovery Institute pressured the school to drop the class, according to Evolution News, and praised the school when it did so (see Discovery Institute press release).
As usual, there is more to the story, so we visited the school to find out. Sharon Lemburg, the teacher under fire, is wife of the pastor of the local Assembly of God church in town. She has taught at Frazier Mountain High School for years in subjects like special ed, history, and social studies. The school offers an annual intersession elective program between semesters. Noting that previous intersession electives included subjects like Mythology and Comparative Religions, she volunteered to teach a new class on “Philosophy of Design” in which she hoped to expose interested students to this high-profile subject that is being debated in school boards around the country. A reporter had visited her church after the class had been announced. The sermon was on Proverbs 3:5-6, an oft-quoted and well-loved passage among all Jews and Christians: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths. After developing a comfortable conversational relationship with the teacher, the reporter got Lemburg to say that “this was the class I felt the Lord wanted me to teach.” That was the sound bite the reporter needed: Teacher claims God told her to teach class on intelligent design echoed around the world.
Another incident contributed to how the media reported the story. Lemburg had delivered to the principal a rough outline of the class, for his comments and suggestions. This version of the outline was never adopted, never voted on, never agreed on, and never formed the basis of the curriculum, yet found its way on news reports and blogs all over the internet. It included a predominance of pro-ID resources, books and tapes, including some from a young-earth creationist perspective. A scientist in town named Ken Hurst, who works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and acts as lead mentor for the school’s robotics team, got hold of this initial outline and was incensed. He wrote a strong letter to the principal, that was subsequently printed in the local paper, explaining his reasons why the class should be canceled because, in his opinion, intelligent design is masqueraded creationism, a religiously-motivated belief that is not science. Energized by the Dover case and other rulings about creationism, he proceeded to organize 11 parents and, with the willing cooperation of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, obtained a temporary restraining order and filed a lawsuit to stop the class on the grounds that this was “the camel’s nose under the tent” to undermine science teaching at the high school. The teacher, the principal, the superintendent and the board of trustees of the school were named as defendants. Needless to say, these actions created a firestorm of debate in the small community (with no small number supportive of the class). Letters to the editor varied from polarized views to others calling for peace and understanding.
What some reporters omitted was that the revised outline was much different: much more balanced, with recommended resources from both sides, including all eight hours of the PBS series Evolution. Nevertheless, the pro-ID Discovery Institute sent a lawyer to the community who strongly urged them to withdraw the class, because by having introduced young-earth creationist materials it was misrepresenting what intelligent design means. When he saw the revised outline, however, he praised it highly. Still, he saw legal vulnerabilities in the case due to the apparent advocacy of creationism in the initial planning, though the curriculum in its final form was perfectly defensible. The school acquiesced and agreed to withdraw the class. “School District Waves the White Flag,” reported Fox News. The Contra Costa Times was disappointed, feeling the school board gave in too much. Believing that a philosophy class (though not a science class) was an appropriate venue for discussing such issues, they hoped other schools would “not follow in the footsteps of El Tejon’s educational leaders,” because “Our society will only become more polarized if the next generations don’t realize that issues have more than one side.” Even the Hammer of Truth blog, no friend of ID, thought philosophy was an appropriate venue and that the lawsuit was overboard.
Evolution News, a blog of the Discovery Institute focused on media bias on the ID issue, took the media and the anti-ID PACs to task for hypocrisy. Robert Crowther quoted Barry Lynn, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, having stating earlier that “when it comes to matters of religion and philosophy, they [ID issues] can be discussed objectively in public schools, but not in biology class.” Here was a case of ID in a philosophy class, and not even that was tolerated. The AU’s Legal Director Ayesha Khan gloated that the decision “sends a strong signal to school districts across the country that they cannot promote creationism or intelligent design as an alternative to evolution whether they do so in a science class or a humanities class.” To Crowther, this represents the ultimate in censorship. “Now, we have Lynn and other Darwinists on a crusade to make sure that students will never even know that a theory called intelligent design was ever discussed anywhere,” he said.
There are some things you should know in interpreting this story.
- None of the plaintiffs had students in the class.
- The class was an elective between semesters. No one was required to take it. The students all chose to be there, when they could have been out snowboarding, playing sports or hanging out with their friends.
- The parents all signed permission slips for their teens to take the class.
- The class had the full support of the principal, the superintendent, and a majority of the board of directors.
- While the final syllabus did contain a number of intelligent design videos and books on the list of suggested resources, it also included all eight hours of the PBS Evolution series, a video interview with paleontologist James W. Valentine, a presentation from the University of California Museum of Paleontology, and the textbook Evolution vs. Creation by Eugenie Scott (as recommended by Ken Hurst).
- The syllabus listed no resources promoting young-earth creationism, but only asked one question: “How does Intelligent Design differ from Creationism? and how is it similar?” (Lest this item beg the question that young-earth creationism is somehow evil or unconstitutional, see what ID leader Phillip Johnson said about it on Touchstone, May 2004).
- Almost all the students are Christians, and none are staunch evolutionists, so they were not being subjected to unwelcome or forced instruction about creationism or ID. If anything, their beliefs were subject to challenge by the pro-evolutionary material.
- The final syllabus used in the class states, “This class is not meant to guide you into a certain belief, but to allow you to search, become aware of the differences, and gain a better understanding of world views on origins.” It also specified that “Equal and balanced instruction will be given on all philosophies.”
- The students appear unanimously upset at the reaction by those opposed to the class. One is taking it upon herself to write newspapers around the country expressing her displeasure with the censorship imposed by evolutionists on this class. She wants to set the record straight on what was taught.
- The teacher invited a pro-evolution biology PhD from UCLA to teach for a day. He spent a lot of time talking about the Miller experiment (see 05/02/2003 story). Several of the students said that he dodged their questions.
- Lemburg explained her intentions in a letter published in the local paper. After explaining what she meant by her statement “this is the class that the Lord wanted me to teach,” she wrote on January 8,
My motives were honest and sincere, in that all I desired was to present an educational experience to give the students an opportunity to hear and study about the philosophers of design, to be able to critically analyze them and to learn to examine the opinions or philosophies and to weigh them…to ask who made the statement, what is their bias, what is their philosophy, what evidence do they bring?
Each student in my class will have the opportunity to hear and study philosophies concerning the origin of life. These ideas represent atheistic, agnostic, liberal and Christian views. We are looking at the ways these views have shaped and changed our world views, and I am challenging these students to know what they think and what those thoughts are based on. To know it because they believe it, not because someone else says ‘it is so,’ but to become critical thinkers who can express their own beliefs.
Does this sound like a rabid Christian fundamentalist with an agenda, out to force her narrow religious beliefs down the throats of unsuspecting high school students? Good grief. The Darwin Party hypocrites have been telling us for years that ID was OK in philosophy, social studies, history or religion – just not in biology class, but look at what they do when someone takes them up on it. This innocent little class in a minor rural town with 13 students and a mild-mannered teacher wanted to talk about “Philosophy of Design” and develop critical thinking skills, and the Darwin dogmatists went paranoid. When will they realize this smells like the Inquisition? The very people who preach against dogmatism are the most intolerant of all, worrying about the “hidden agenda” and the “camel’s nose under the tent,” as if high school students are so stupid, so incapable of reasoning, that they cannot handle the thought that Darwinism is not the infallible idol its priests say it is. Teaching ID as philosophy should be completely non-threatening to evolutionists. The action of this school made perfect sense to William Dembski, who called this a step in the right direction.
One other thing. The class was not ordered to end immediately. It was allowed to complete its five-week run. As part of the out-of-court settlement, the school agreed never again to offer a course that promotes creationism, creation science or intelligent design. Sounds like an utter defeat for ID and a complete victory for the Darwinists, but Lemburg explains that she never intended to “promote” ID or creationism in the first place. For all their gloating, the Darwin-Only-Darwin-Only DODOs won a hollow victory here, and earned a reputation as Inquisitors out to hunt down heretics, as hypocrites saying one thing then doing another, as dogmatists fearful of exposing their pet theory to scrutiny.
School boards interested in getting this important debate a hearing on their campuses should not be alarmed by what happened in Frazier Park or Dover, because “teaching the controversy” is backed by the full force of the United States Congress and the President. It is the law of the land. For vital information on why teaching the controversy is legal and constitutional, get this must-see video by Phillip Johnson that explains it all: “One Nation Under Darwin,” available from Access Research Network.