Earlier this year, Georgia's Secretary of Education, Kathy Cox, unleashed a national controversy when she announced the state's new science curriculum. The course of study would not mention the term evolution, which she called a "controversial buzzword." Many conservative religious groups reject the Darwinian concept of survival of the fittest and have called on public schools to teach the Biblical story of creation in science classes. Amid the uproar that followed her announcement, Secretary Cox rescinded the decision. But the debate continues in Georgia's schools. One place the controversy still looms large is Cobb County, home to an ongoing lawsuit over evolution.
It's a simple scientific concept, and perhaps one of the most complex issues in culturally conservative parts of the nation. And nearly eight decades after a teacher in Tennessee went on trial for talking to his class about Darwin's ideas, talk of evolution has taken center-stage in Georgia's public classrooms. Two years ago, the School Board of Cobb County, near Atlanta, voted to place a sticker in the county's science textbooks.
"The disclaimer says, '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,'" says attorney Michael Manely who represents a parent group from Cobb County, which has sued the school board, demanding the disclaimer be removed. The group says the county is trying to force religion into the schools.
Cobb County education officials deny that claim, but with countless theories about everything from galaxy formation to cell communication - Mr. Manely is skeptical. "There are well over 5,000 theories that I'm familiar with. So of these 5,000 possible scientific theories: Why has the school board chosen to disclaim only evolution?"
Cobb County Schools declined to comment on the matter, but others were happy to speak out.
"Well, I think the sticker is appropriate," says Barrett Duke, the Vice-President for Public Policy of the Southern Baptist Convention. "I think it's appropriate for students to understand that evolution is a theory; It is not fact."
Mainstream scientists, however, do recognize evolution as a fact, based on fossil records and other biological evidence. They reject the concept put forward by one group of evolution opponents, known as Intelligent Design Theory. Its underlying premise is: if there's a creation, there must be a creator.
For Sarah Pallas, a science professor at Georgia State University, Intelligent Design is not so much a competing theory as a distraction. "I liken these groups, such as Discovery Institute, to schoolyard bullies that are pushing their way to the head of the line," she says. "They don't do laboratory science. They don't spend their millions in private donations on test-tubes or DNA analysis machines, they spend it on their PR machines, pushing on uneducated school board members, to get their ideas into the classroom."
The Discovery Institute, the conservative think-tank behind Intelligent Design, says it does not endorse the theory's inclusion in school curriculum, only the presentation of "scientific weaknesses" it sees in Darwinian evolution.
But there is a moral imperative for conservative groups to get involved in public education matters, according to Graham Walker, a theology professor at Mercer University. He points to what some see as a lack of moral foundation in today's public schools. "We have not provided a basis the way the old 17th and 18th century schooling systems provided it: Whereby you would discuss: 'How should I live?'"
Moreover, the upsurge in the evolution controversy comes as conservative religious groups like the Southern Baptist Convention are facing a more palpable crisis: Barrett Duke says, they're losing followers. "There's no question that many Christian young people are going out to public school and they're coming out much different than their parents had expected them to come out!"
The SBC says that by the time they are 18 years old, nearly 90-percent of the children raised in evangelical homes have left the church, never to return. The attrition problem has Southern Baptist leaders so concerned that earlier this year, prominent members of the church asked their national convention to consider a resolution that would have called on Southern Baptist parents to remove their children from the nation's public schools.
Georgia State science professor Sarah Pallas agrees that U.S. public schools are in real trouble but for exactly the opposite reason than that voiced by the Southern Baptists: not discussing scientific topics like evolution is leading to a decline in test scores and the quality of education and economic potential. "We are losing out on our dominance in this area, in science and technology, and the top scientists, the top-notch discoveries, are now not located in this country anymore, they're located overseas. This is going to be a real economic cost to the state, and to the nation," she says.
But those fears are not shared by conservative Christian leaders like Barrett Duke. "For those of us who believe that God really did create the world," he says, "it seems to me that it would be appropriate to at least give a nod in God's direction!"
Earlier this summer, the State Education Board adopted science curriculum standards based on the goals recommended by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As classes resume in Georgia, public schools will be held to those standards, which include the teaching of evolution and its related concepts.
The case regarding the disclaimer stickers in Cobb County could go to trial as soon as October.