When a federal judge in Georgia ruled last week that a local school board’s decision to put a small sticker on its science textbooks labeling evolution “a theory, not a fact” was unconstitutional, Jeffrey Selman said it was primarily an American issue. Still, he said, he could not help but view it through the lens of his Jewishness.
“Look what happened in Germany,” Selman, one of a group of parents that sued the Cobb County school board to have the stickers removed, told JTA.
“The German Jews said, ‘We’re Germans. We’ll be fine.’ The next thing you know, they were opening the oven doors for us.”
But not all Jews see things Selman’s way.
The Cobb County case, along with another related case now roiling a town in Pennsylvania, is the latest in a series of national issues that expose rifts between some Orthodox Jews and Judaism’s more liberal branches.
In 2002, the Cobb County school district decided to place the evolution disclaimers on students’ biology texts after parents complained that the book did not present alternate views on the origins of life.
The decision touched a nerve among some in the American Orthodox community who would like to see a greater discussion of God in American classrooms, and those in other movements who believe the stickers are a thinly veiled effort to reintroduce creationism into school science curricula.
“If one teaches that the human being is just an evolved ape, and that our consciences and sense that we have a soul and free will are just phantasm — that road leads to amorality,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a fervently Orthodox group.
“It leads to it being impossible to say that any particular way of living is right or wrong.”
“It’s perfectly reasonable to hope that teachers teach students that there is such a thing as a religious approach,” Shafran added.
But Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the case raises a red flag with regard to the separation of church and state, a barrier he said has allowed religion in the United States to flourish.
“The efforts of others to impose a theological discipline where it doesn’t exist is unfortunate,” Yoffie said. “It violates church-state separation. It’s bad technique and not good for children.”
The stickers read, “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.”
On Monday, the Cobb County school board voted to appeal the court’s decision, calling it an “unnecessary judicial intrusion into local control of schools.” In a statement, the board further denied that its decision to use the disclaimer was an attempt to inject religion into the schools.
But Selman strongly disagreed.
There is “a small group of myopic people who want to gain power in this country by insisting that their religious beliefs are” paramount “and want the rest of the country to follow these beliefs,” said Selman, a computer programming consultant who had a son in fifth grade.
The Cobb County ruling came as another related legal drama was unfolding.
In October, the Dover, Pa., school board decided that biology teachers must discuss an alternative to evolution known as Intelligent Design with students. Last month, several parents sued the school board. The plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, say that the board’s decision imposes a religious viewpoint on their children.
Intelligent Design theory holds that the universe is so complex that its existence cannot be explained simply by an undirected process such as natural selection but must be the product of some superintelligence.
The theory’s proponents present it as a scientific alternative to evolution. Opponents, though, insist it is of dubious scientific value and simply is the latest effort by fundamentalist creationists to inject religion into science classes.
“Intelligent Design is just the newest variation of what used to be called creationism,” said Steven Freeman, associate director for civil rights at the Anti-Defamation League. It “doesn’t specifically mention God, but it’s there with a wink and a nod. That’s what its proponents are talking about.”
In 1968, in Epperson v. Arkansas, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to restrict a teacher’s right to teach evolution. In 1987, in Edwards v. Aguillard, the court said that a teacher cannot be compelled to teach creationism alongside evolution.
To creationism’s opponents, the latest battles are a contemporary iteration of the infamous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, with creationists, twice disappointed by the Supreme Court, again struggling to undermine evolution, this time through the back door.
“Efforts by people from the Christian right who have a real agenda, whether they couch it as Intelligent Design or creationism, is not only harmful for Jews, it fundamentally undermines American democracy,” said Deborah Lauter, the director of the ADL’s southeast region, who sat in on the Atlanta trial.
“Securing religious liberty in this country means preserving church-state separation.”
Alan Mittleman, director of the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, says Intelligent Design simply is bad science.
“It doesn’t seem to me that Intelligent Design theory really lives up to scientific standards. Having said that, I don’t think science is the ultimate explanation of our world,” said Mittleman, whose work addresses issues of religion and public affairs.
“Science is an elaborate conceptual game, but it’s not the only game.”
Still, Mittleman sees some middle ground.
“There are epistemological and methodological problems with the theory of evolution, and they ought to be explored in advanced science classes,” he said. “But that’s a different matter from presenting Intelligent Design as a full-fledged alternative.”
Yoffie, of the Reform Movement, said that those in the Orthodox community who would support the teaching of Intelligent Design “seem to share the view that is prevalent among those in the Christian right, that somehow in modern society we are banishing God from the public square and this will have a disastrous result.”
Yoffie called this notion “totally absurd.”
“America is the most religious of the industrial countries,” he said. “And that is attributable directly to the church-state separation that is embedded in the Constitution. Stronger religious life goes hand in hand with church-state separation.”
Shafran, for his part, said, “One can reasonably make a distinction between the establishment of religion and the basic concept that human beings’ lives have meaning.”
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, said that it was “kind of silly” to put stickers on books warning students. But the focus of his assessment was on the bigger picture. Weinreb said that Jewish observance and evolution are not mutually exclusive.
“I don’t think it’s theologically necessary to debunk evolution,” he said.
An observant Jew, for example, can believe that “God’s intelligence set in motion some kind of evolutionary process,” he said.
This is only the latest in a string of social issues on which the Orthodox and non-Orthodox movements have disagreed. Others include abortion and school vouchers.
Shafran agrees that science is important, but said that “once science has had its say, there remains a larger question of why are we here and what do our lives mean.”
“We’d like to see a stress on the importance of moral values, which Judaism teaches are meant to underlie all of society, not just Jewish society,” he said. “Without belief in God, I’m not sure there’s much hope that morality will be given its due.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.