First Amendment Advocate, Vol. 4, No. 1, August 2003
The Newsletter of the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United
Textbook Disclaimers: A bad idea whose time should never come
by Jim Huff
Think back a few years ago to 1999. The Oklahoma State Textbook Committee attempted to require biology textbook publishers to put a printed “disclaimer” in all new textbooks that discussed biological evolution. The disclaimer was to taint the concept of evolution. In essence, it was an attempt to “poison the well” related to this long established scientific concept. Questions were raised and conclusions were made that were inappropriate for a legislative body (government) to mandate on Oklahoma’s public schools. It would have been an academic disservice to those students and teachers in public schools studying the subject of biology.
Those supporting the “disclaimer approach” to biology material should be recognized as “creationists” or “intelligent design advocates.” Their motivations were to include matters of personal faith (religion) alongside the traditional class discussions of evolution. It was a backdoor approach to introduce religious expectations into public school classrooms. The Supreme Court has ruled that “creationism” is not a scientific concept and teaching it is an inappropriate mixing of “church and state.”
The effort failed when the Attorney General ruled that the Committee had no authority to require an evolution disclaimer. The ruling also concluded that the Committee had violated the Open Meeting Act when the disclaimer was adopted at their November 5th meeting. The opponents of the AG ruling did not challenge it in any type of law suit. But, they did not give up their intent to establish a landmark change in Oklahoma’s public schools.
The strategy shifted from the use of established public education agencies to the state legislature. It is easier to threaten political consequences (votes) if a legislator does not support the “disclaimer approach.”
The AG ruling had nothing to with 1) the debate over “evolution” and “creationism” 2) the introduction of a totally new role for government in academic matters, or 3) the “disclaimer approach” to subject matter in Oklahoma’s public schools.
It was a simple declaration that the State Textbook Committee went far beyond their legal authority and DID IT IN A MANNER NOT IN THE OPEN FOR ALL OKLAHOMANS TO SEE.
January 2003 the evolution disclaimer idea was introduced again in HB 1504 by Representative Graves. The same language from 1999 was introduced as a new Oklahoma law. The bill died in committee.
Again the disclaimer idea appeared late in the legislative session as an amendment to Senator Pruitt’s SB 346. This bill was related to “the filing of meritless lawsuits against school districts, teachers, administrators, and other school employees.” The bill had nothing to do with either biology or textbooks. AGAIN THERE WAS NO NOTICE TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC. There was no effort to hear from public school students, parents, teachers, administrators, college level biology instructors, etc.
Why is the academic study of biological evolution such a burning issue? Why all the “below the radar” tactics? All persons of faith in Oklahoma are not supportive of the misleading disclaimer language. There have been no problems in the biology classrooms. No student’s individual faith perspective has been mistreated.
As a high school Social Studies Teacher, I have taught many subjects that do not have total academic agreement within the subject areas: U.S. history, world history, government, economics, sociology, psychology, religions of the world. If the “disclaimer approach” is adopted by the Oklahoma legislature, all of the identified subjects could be next in line for some type of disclaimer” designed to taint some concept that a majority of legislators do not accept. DISCLAIMERS ARE A BAD IDEA AND SHOULD NEVER BE ADOPTED.
By the way, the WORDS, “freedom of religion” or “separation of church and state” are not in the U. S. Constitution. You think somebody who wants a closer relationship between the government and religious groups COULD HAVE IN MIND A DISCLAIMER FOR U.S. HISTORY or U.S. GOVERNMENT TEXTBOOKS?
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”
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