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Selman v. Cobb County in creationism case

ATLANTA, Oct. 16 — Jeffrey Selman, who is suing the Cobb County School District, says the county’s school board is kowtowing to a “vocal, myopic, sectarian minority” by allowing educators to teach creationism in science classes. On Sept. 26, the seven-member Cobb County School Board unanimously approved a resolution on teaching the origin of earth’s species that will allow teachers to discuss both creationism and the theory of evolution. That vote followed an August decision by the school board to place stickers in science textbooks stating that evolution is a scientific theory, not a fact. (The American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU] has challenged the stickers as a “fundamentalist Christian expression” that violates separation of church and state.) Selman, 56, filed his case after the disclaimer was approved, and may expand the suit to include the school board’s decision on teaching creationism. “I see something jeopardizing America, and it’s over and over rearing its head,” said Selman, a former history teacher who works as a computer programming consultant in Marietta, a fast-growing suburb of Atlanta. “I didn’t want to sit idly by, especially since it’s my backyard now.” Since the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee, U.S. courts have barred public schools from teaching Bible-based creationism, which holds that the universe and all living things were created in their present form and did not evolve. But the battle did not end when John Scopes was found guilty and fined $100 for teaching evolution. The verdict was overturned on a technicality, but the issue has popped up around the country ever since. Selman said the creationism issue came to his attention in 1996, when he joined a state task force to design the core curriculum for Georgia schools. “I was one of many who was pushing for [putting] some kind of secular ethics back in schools,” said Selman. “The state legislature blindsided us” when it endorsed the teaching of “respect for others” and “respect for the creator.” That, said Selman, “crossed the line.” Selman dismisses charges by Cobb backers of creationism that he is anti-religion and said 95 percent of the phone calls he has gotten have been positive. “I’m not against anybody’s religion,” Selman said. “I want everybody to practice what they believe. I practice [Judaism] the way I want to.” Selman, who is not affiliated with a synagogue, moved to Atlanta from New York more than a decade ago. He has one child attending elementary school in the Cobb County school system, Georgia’s second largest. Since filing the suit Selman said he has spoken to about 20 or 25 Cobb County teachers. Most of them oppose the resolution, he said, but 10 to 15 percent told him they see it as an opportunity to bring God into their classrooms. Michael Manely, Selman’s attorney, has sent a letter to the Cobb school board asking it to define the new policy on teaching of evolution more clearly. The board’s response will determine whether his lawsuit is expanded, said Selman. The Cobb County School Board defended its resolution in a statement that said its new policy does not require teaching creationism or restrict the teaching of evolution. “Our intention is to promote a broad-based science curriculum which will acknowledge that there are differences of opinion about the origin of life, and to encourage students and others to be tolerant and respectful of those who may have different beliefs,” the statement reads. “Religion has no place in science instruction, but science instruction need not offend those who hold religious beliefs of whatever type.” But Selman — who has the backing of the Anti-Defamation League — says the people singling out evolution as a theory to attack are motivated by religious belief. “There is no secular group attacking evolution,” Selman said. “They don’t attack gravity, they don’t attack relativity or how a computer works. You can’t pick and choose.” Most scientists recognize the theory of evolution, postulated more than 150 years ago by Charles Darwin, as fact. The constantly revised theory explains changes in animals and humans through natural selection over millions of years. Selman believes attacking Darwin’s ideas makes no sense. “It’s an ongoing functioning theory; it’s the best answer we have to what’s going on,” said Selman. You don’t need an alternative theory to it because it is constantly revising itself.” Nancy Myers, who works with Selman, is not surprised that he got involved in the evolution dispute. “He’s got a hot justice button,” she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “When he sees wrong being done, he wants to do something about it. I’d call him principled.” Deborah Lauter, southeast regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Selman has done “an outstanding job of doing something when he saw an injustice.” That’s why the ADL recently recognized Selman as an unsung hero. Lauter also said the ADL is in contact with ACLU attorneys to assess how her group can contribute. “Even though the [Cobb] policy states it is neutral toward religion, its effect will be to allow science teachers to break down the wall between church and state,” said Lauter in a statement. “This issue has been driven by those who are relentless and clever in their schemes to break down the wall between church and state. It is a shame that the school board . . . would set a policy that is open to constitutional challenge.” Barry Lynn, an official of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told reporters that Cobb County was “putting up a giant ‘sue me’ sign.” The teaching of evolution is generally not a problem in Jewish schools, said Rabbi Joseph Abrams, principal of Yeshiva Atlanta. “For us it’s not an issue. We teach evolution,” he said. “The Bible states the fact that God created the world; it didn’t happen by accident, but with reason and purpose. “Evolution is a process of creation,” Abrams explained. “We don’t see science and religion as a conflict. Many scientists are still strong believers.” Evolution may be a theory, said Abrams, “but it’s the best thing we have to work with.” Still, he said, creation was not a series of accidents that just happened. “If you remove deity, then it’s just an accident. I believe I was put here on purpose and live my life accordingly.” Linda Bachmann contributed to this story.