CAMPBELL COUNTY—“In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.”
This is the opening line of the Bible and for an estimated 17,000 students in public and private schools, it is also the beginning of a science workbook distributed by Responsive Education Solutions.
The Lewisville, Texas-based academic administrative system receives more than $80 million a year in taxpayer money and oversees the curriculum operations of more than 60 campuses in Arkansas, Indiana and Texas.
As the largest charter school district in Texas, R.E.’s influence over thousands of schools’ curricula is growing and fueling the teaching of creationism in schools.
In 2012, a state law in Tennessee allows public school teachers to examine the “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” of theories considered controversial, primarily because they refer to the planet’s development over billions of years.
Opponents of the law fear it provides a legal cover for educators who teach creationism as an alternative to science — evolution in particular. Campbell County educators vary in their position of teaching creationism but say science remains a focal area.
Schools of thought
Heather Justice teaches an elective bible-based class at Jellico High School.
“The principle belief of creationism is that all things in the heavens and on the earth were created by the God of Judeo-Christian tradition,” she said.
Ten students are enrolled in Justice’s course, and creationism is recognized in the course material.
Justice said, the text is studied through an academic rather than a devotional lens. The school’s biology curriculum has a chapter on evolution, she said, and no mention of creationism.
“While the Bible curriculum doesn’t teach the theory of creationism as a scientific explanation of all natural existence, students read the biblical perspective of creationism from Genesis 1 and 2 with a focus on the historical, environmental, literary, social, scientific and cultural impacts the Bible has had on western society.”
Justice said, “My attitude toward evolution is the same as the scientists who propose it. It is a theory.”
Evolution is the study of living beings’ development over time. Whereas creationism is reasoned through faith, evolution is supported through scientific evidence. Both are essentially theories and tension can arise when debated in the classroom.
Christie Elkins, a Press columnist who homeschools her three children with both science- and faith-based principles, said a primary misconception about the debate between creationism and evolution is that people assume creationism is only faith-based and that evolution is only a science-based theory.
There are many people with no faith-based initiative, she said, who trust the elements of creationism as science — and there are those with a strong faith who believe in evolutionary studies, she said.
“It is important to remember that with any theory, regardless of whether your children attend school in a public, private or home-school sector, education begins at home,” Elkins said.
As a faith-based homeschooling parent, Elkins said she aims to always measure information against the grain of biblical truth.
“We believe wholeheartedly that the Earth was created in six days with God resting on the seventh day. But [my children] also understand that everyone does not agree with that theory and we are in a continual training to understand both theories to better explain our own thoughts on this topic,” she said.
“And always be able to defend your heart on the matter.”
Monica Bane teaches biology at Campbell County High School. She identifies as a creationist.
“We aren’t told what we can’t teach,” she said, regarding whether creationism is mandated.
“But it’s a demanding schedule we stick to in order to cover everything in a school year. There isn’t really room for it. On our website, you can see the standards expected of students and their knowledge of the subject.”
Bane prefaces that she believes in creationism but stays true to the standards of the curriculum. This ensures the students are knowledgeable, which accounts for 50 percent of educators’ performance reviews, Bane said.
Campbell County High School history teacher Ann Browning said her course covers Darwinism and Social Darwinism.
The course’s text — Prentice Hall United States History: Reconstruction to the Present — speaks of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 and how it sparked a clash “between fundamentalism and modernism.” The text states that fundamentalism is characterized by fundamentalists’ belief that “the answer to every important moral and scientific question was in their holy book.” These ideas are cited as being rooted throughout the country but especially strong in rural America.
Scott’s “Monkey” trial
Nearly 40 years after the Scopes trial, a fundamental presence was strongly notable at Jacksboro High School. In 1967, 24-year-old science teacher, Gary L. Scott, of Jacksboro, was fired after teaching evolution at Jacksboro High School.
“I was there when that happened with Gary Scott,” said JHS graduate Donna Prater, of Jacksboro. “A lot of kids got really stirred up and cried. A little girl, Marlene Moore, slung snot and cried, she was so upset.”
Prater said parents became involved shortly after Scott upset students when he began discussing other religions and theories.
“He was just really questioning traditions and really open-minded,” she said. “He would say things like, ‘But what about all these other religions. Some of them have beautiful ideas, like Buddhism.”
Students felt like Scott was attacking Christianity, she said, when he was simply questioning tradition.
“All he really said was, ‘How do we know?’” she said. “It was not a thing anybody talked about at Jacksboro High School.”
Prater said parents put a great deal of pressure on administrators, and Scott may have realized that he could have been more delicate.
As for whether evolution was taught at that time, Prater said, “Not really.” Her biology teacher, Roger Duncan, she said taught that if a species ever crossed, its offspring would become sterile at best, she said.
“He taught pretty traditional biology,” she said. “He taught that all humans were born either male or female. I know now that’s not quite right. But it was a bit much how Scott was treated. He was only asking questions. I never felt my faith was attacked.”
Scott’s dismissal was taken during a public board meeting in which all eight present voted for Scott’s dismissal.
In advocating the theory of evolution, Scott violated the state’s Butler Act made famous during the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, named after the misconception that Darwin believed humans descended from apes.
The Butler Act denied the teaching in public-funded schools of any theory that conflicted with the Bible’s origin story.
Scott sued the school board for reinstatement. The National Science Teachers Association joined him in the lawsuit and termed his dismissal as “a violation of a teacher’s rights based on medieval attitudes toward ideas.”
Scott also cited his freedom of speech. His termination was rescinded on May 11.
Though he was reinstated, Scott pursued a class-action lawsuit in the Nashville Federal District Court in search of a permanent injunction against enforcement of the Butler Act. Within three days, the Butler Act was successfully repealed on May 18.
A year later, the Supreme Court ruled in Epperson v. Arkansas that antievolution laws are unconstitutional for disregarding the separation of church and state and imposing a state-supported religion. The court found the antievolution laws were “an attempt to blot out a particular theory because of its supposed conflict with the biblical account taken literally.”
Despite the ruling, religious individuals stress a need to include some form of creationism in schools. Dr. Bill Horner, who writes a faith-based column for the Press, said science cannot answer all the questions of the universe.
“We Christians believe God made man and woman in his image — that is, able to relate to and worship him — and that he made us by his personal touch with a loving hand,” Horner said. “Evolutionists believe we evolved by a fantastic series of happy coincidences over eons and eons of time.”
Neither side can ever prove its case scientifically, he said, and both sides require faith. Horner also said both sides should get a fair hearing in schools and not be excluded as “religious” and “unscientific.”
What is taught here
Campbell County High School’s current biology textbook, a Miller & Levine publication, begins its first chapter — “What is Science?” — referencing an “ancient evening” when someone looked at the sky and wondered about the origin of stars, plants and animals.
“Since then,” the text states, “humans have tried to answer those questions.” The text then says human ancestors originally came up with “tales of magic or legends” before humans slowly began to explore the natural world using a scientific approach.
The textbook’s authors cite describe evolutionary theory as “one of the most important, and most central, contributions to our scientific understanding of life on earth.” The text defines a scientific theory as “a well-supported, testable explanation of phenomena that have occurred in the natural world.”
Today and regardless of their view, evolutionists, creationists — or a hybrid of the two — can find solace in the commonality of living well past 1967 where the conversation can take place.