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Religion vs. science again Reviving memories of the Scopes 'monkey' trial, the debate over the place of evolution and creationism in schools has a new twist

Second-graders learn the scientific method in a room with posters that read "We are all God's children" and "Jesus is my best friend."

High school biology students participate in a "survival of the fittest" lab practicum -- part of their study of the theory of evolution -- even though instructors and administrators think that the theory is just plain wrong.

Welcome to Christian Central Academy in Williamsville, where there is no debate about whether creationism -- or a version of creation teaching known as intelligent design -- should be taught in science classes. It is.

Nurline Lawrence, head of the school, thinks that public schools would do well to take a similar approach, teaching creationism or intelligent design alongside evolution -- an idea that has gained traction in some parts of the country.

"The problem with public education is not that there's a multiplicity of ideas; it's that some ideas are favored over others," Lawrence said.

The fact that Christian Central teaches creationism at all sets the school apart from local public schools, where the theory of intelligent design is generally avoided. It also runs contrary to what is found in parochial schools, which teach and accept the scientific theory as well as creation.

The new version of a nearly century-old debate played out this year in a Pennsylvania courtroom, culminating this week when a federal judge ruled that the Dover School Board acted unconstitutionally when it required ninth-grade biology teachers to read a statement saying that there were "gaps" in the theory of evolution and that intelligent design was an alternative theory.

The strongly worded decision from U.S. District Court Judge John E. Jones III comes amid unprecedented efforts across the country to advance the teaching of intelligent design in public schools.

But this region reflects what is going on across New York, a state that has largely sidestepped the nationwide battle between those who say intelligent design has no place in biology classes and others who think that it should be given equal time alongside evolution.

Besides a lone assemblyman who tried -- and failed -- to have intelligent design taught in public schools, there has been no organized effort to have the theory incorporated into the state's biology curriculum. And if there ever were, the Amherst-based Center for Inquiry, an international humanist group, would be poised to mobilize the opposition.

>'It's not science'

The theory of intelligent design began gaining increased acceptance after the publication in 1996 of Lehigh University biochemist Michael J. Behe's book, "Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution." Behe maintained that much of Darwin's theory was valid, but he also wrote that some aspects of life were so complex that they must have been the work of an intelligent designer.

More than 20 other states are now facing challenges to the teaching of evolution or active promotion of an intelligent design curriculum.

New York has largely avoided those educational culture wars, but not entirely.

Assemblyman Daniel L. Hooker, R-Saugerties, introduced the bill last May seeking to have intelligent design taught in public schools. The bill all but died when no one would co-sponsor it. Hooker was responding to the concerns of people in his rural, heavily Republican district, said Chuck Kaiser, the assemblyman's chief of staff. Hooker, a Marine Corps reservist, was called to active duty.

"It was something they would like to see, primarily because most of our public school systems today only teach one side of that issue," Kaiser said. "They wanted students to be able to look at both sides of the issue and make an educated decision."

On the other side of the debate in New York is the Center for Inquiry, which orchestrated a letter-writing campaign to legislators.

Supporters of the center sent nearly 1,000 e-mail messages opposing Hooker's bill. The group also compiled a list of people ready to mobilize in case any schools in the state are asked to begin teaching intelligent design.

>'Public relations' effort

"It's not science. It's basically creationism, which is a religious doctrine, which doesn't belong in a science curriculum," said Barry Karr, executive director of the Center for Inquiry. "I have no problem with it being taught in a comparative religion course or social studies, in a historical context.

"It's a public relations campaign by Christian religious groups. We shouldn't decide science based on a public relations campaign."

Proponents of intelligent design maintain that they are on firm scientific, as well as theological, ground.

Christian reasoning for the origins of humankind has come a long way since the famous 1925 Scopes "monkey" trial, when anti-evolutionists were embarrassed by attorney Clarence Darrow's relentless attacks on literal interpretations of the Bible, said Phyllis Stallard of Grand Island, who supports teaching creationism.

"They stumped the Christian world because we didn't have our science in order. Now we do," Stallard said.

Advocates of intelligent design also argue that evolutionary theory has too many gaps in it to be plausible.

"To have these billions of cells in your body and billions of people on earth -- logically, how could that happen by chance?" said Sandi Emser, a biology teacher at Christian Central Academy.

"You get stuck at some point," said a colleague of Emser's, Richard Phillips, who teaches earth science, chemistry and physics. "The big bang? Well, what banged? Come on."

Darwin's natural selection is the theory of men, and "men are fallible, and science has changed tremendously over the years," Phillips added.

Nonetheless, he and Emser teach evolution because it is heavily emphasized in the state Regents curriculum.

Finding middle ground

Local Catholic schools begin teaching children -- as early as prekindergarten -- that God created the universe.

In high school, students are taught evolution, which Catholic educators say is compatible with creation.

While Christian Central teaches creationism -- the literal interpretation of the Bible that says God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh -- Catholic schools teach creation theology, which examines the Bible in a historical, critical context, said Denise McKenzie, secretary of education for the Diocese of Buffalo.

"The theory of evolution can only trace back so far," McKenzie said. "Even if you could get to the one single cell, that cell had to start with something, with someone, and we believe that was God. How, we don't know. That's a matter of faith."

New York's public schools generally stick with the curriculum set by the state, which does not include the theory of intelligent design. Many educators say they limit their discussion of it to the occasional questions that come from students.

Orchard Park biology teacher Anthony Agnello takes a middle-of-the-road approach when students raise the issue. Intelligent design and evolution may be compatible ideas, he says, but intelligent design does not belong in a science classroom because the concept is religious, not scientific.

"The theory of intelligent design is a premise of faith," he said. "It is a valid position of faith. But it is a philosophical concept. It doesn't address the mechanism. What evolution talks about is the mechanism by which organisms have come into their present form.

"Organisms on our planet have changed over time. A person of faith would say, 'Well, God has changed those organisms.' A scientist would say, 'By what mechanism has God changed them?' "

e-mail: mpasciak@buffnews.com and jtokasz@buffnews.com

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