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Selman vs. Cobb County

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Selman v. Cobb County was a legal case begun in 2004 over "disclaimer" stickers that a Cobb County, Georgia school placed on science textbooks.

Background


In March of 2002, after more than 2,300 complaints from parents regarding their teaching of evolution, the Cobb County, Georgia school district (the second-largest in Georgia) placed stickers on high school biology textbooks, stating

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 33-word statement was adopted in keeping with the school's policy, which stated in part, "discussion of disputed views of academic subjects is a necessary element of providing a balanced education." In August of 2002, after formal complaints, the seven-member board unanimously voted to take 30 days to review the policy.

Board Chair Curt Johnston commented on the decision, saying "We've been told by our attorney we're not allowed to teach creationism. But the point is we want free and open discussion in the classroom. And our teachers are nervous about what they can talk about. This will clarify things."[1]

Linwood Gunn, a lawyer for Cobb County schools, said "They improve the curriculum, while also promoting an attitude of tolerance for those with different religious beliefs."[2]

Following the 30-day review, the school board unanimously agreed the disputed policy should remain.

The Lawsuit


In November of 2004, Jeffrey Selman and three other parents filed suit. Salman asserted that the singling out of evolution stems from a religious basis, and violated separation of church and state. "I'm a strong advocate for the separation of church and state," Selman told the Associated Press. "I have no problem with anybody's religious beliefs. I just want an adequate educational system."[3]

The plantiffs argued that the case endorsed religion. ACLU lawyer Margaret F. Garrett told Judge Cooper, "the disclaimer’s wording is actually an endorsement of religion and it makes evolution seem unsound and unsupported."

In a legal brief submitted to the court, 30 scientists agreed the courts should not censor free and rigorous inquiry on the weaknesses of evolution. Signatories included biologists and biochemists from state schools such as University of Georgia, Georgia Southern University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Kennesaw State University, and Ohio State University.[4]

While some tried to argue that it was not about religion, attorney Linwood Gunn linked them by saying "Science and religion are related and they’re not mutually exclusive. This sticker was an effort to get past that conflict and to teach good science."[5]

The case lasted four days.

Ruling


In January of 2005, Clinton-appointed Federal District Court Judge Clarence Cooper ruled that the disclaimers were unconstitutional, and violated guidelines created in the 1971 Lemon v. Kurtzman case, stating

The critical language of the Sticker that supports the conclusion that the Sticker runs afoul of the Establishment Clause is the statement that "[e]volution is a theory, not a fact, concerning the origin of living things." This statement is not problematic because of its truth or falsity, although testimony from various witnesses at trial and the amicus brief submitted by the Colorado Citizens for Science, et al., suggest that the statement is not entirely accurate. Rather, the first problem with this language is that there has been a lengthy debate between advocates of evolution and proponents of religious theories of origin specifically concerning whether evolution should be taught as a fact or as a theory, and the School Board appears to have sided with the proponents of religious theories of origin in violation of the Establishment Clause.

"By denigrating evolution," the Judge ruled. "The school board appears to be endorsing the well-known prevailing alternative theory, creationism or variations thereof, even though the sticker does not specifically reference any alternative theories."

Following the ruling, staffers and students of the school used putty knives and a glue remover to remove the stickers from 34,452 Cobb County schoolbooks.[6] School board member Betty Gray called the removal "just about the most aggravating and frustrating thing you've ever seen."[7]

"This is a great day for Cobb County students," said Michael Manely, an attorney for the plantiffs. "They’re going to be permitted to learn science unadulterated by religious dogma."[8]

The American creationist organization Answers in Genesis wrote
Although we oppose evolution, Answers in Genesis does not believe that the government should compel teachers to teach creation.

The ministry also stated that the judge was right to be concerned about advancing or inhibiting religion, but that he should be "worried about the federal judicial system’s effort to advance the religion of evolutionism and inhibit the will and beliefs of the people in Cobb County."[9]

Appeal


In April of 2005, the Cobb County school filed appealed the case to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Appeals Court remanded the case back to the original court, stating that some key findings were wrong

Jeffrey Bramlett, an attorney for the ACLU argued "Cobb's school board crossed the legal Rubicon when it festooned a perfectly good biology textbook with a political sticker that promotes the cause of scientific confusion. For the millions of us who experience no conflict between the advance of scientific knowledge and the teachings of our faith traditions, this case is a quaint aftershock from a bygone era."

However, in the appeal, Judge Ed Carnes suggested the court by Bramlett's legal brief, noting there was no evidence that the sticker misled anyone as Bramlett suggested.

Bush-appointed Judge Bill Pryor noted that Judge Cooper ruled based on facts that were "just contradicted by the record."[9]

Although the case was remanded, the stickers were not replaced.

The plantiffs prepared for a retrial, bringing in many of the same attorneys and witnesses that testified in Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District, including Kenneth Miller, Eugenie Scott and Brian Alters.

Settlement


On December 19, 2006, the Cobb County Board of Education ended the dispute by settling out of court. They agreed that they would no longer place "stickers, labels, stamps, inscriptions, or other warnings or disclaimers bearing language substantially similar to that used on the sticker that is the subject of this action." The settlement is binding in perpetuity.[10]

Footnotes

  1. Quoted in Cobb board to clarify how origin of life can be taught
  2. Quoted in Evolution textbooks row goes to court
  3. Ibid.
  4. Georgia Scientists File Legal Brief in Evolution Lawsuit
  5. Judge nixes evolution textbook stickers
  6. "Evolution is a theory" sticker on court docket
  7. Ibid.
  8. Judge nixes evolution textbook stickers
  9. Evolution disclaimer on trial
  10. Appeals judges see errors in evolution sticker ruling
  11. Textbook stickers on evolution out in Cobb

Related Links

See Also