School officials in rural northeastern Maryland sought yesterday to quell a two-month debate over the teaching of evolution and the role of faith in public schools, approving an updated high school textbook that emphasizes the significance of Charles Darwin.
The Cecil County school board's 6 to 0 vote means that 10th-grade students in the county's five high schools will be taught with the latest edition of a standard text called "Biology: The Dynamics of Life," according to school district spokeswoman Karen Emery. The text, published by a unit of the McGraw-Hill Cos., is widely used and includes material on Darwin's theories of evolution and natural selection, which are part of the foundation of modern biology. A top county school official said he was unaware of any controversy about the text elsewhere in Maryland.
Debate arose in December when a school board member asked why the text did not give more weight to critics of evolutionary theory. The ensuing scrutiny of the book, aired at a school board forum in January, spotlighted an issue with religious overtones and a long history in the United States, dating to the Scopes trial of the 1920s.
"Book in creationism debate up for vote tonight," read a headline yesterday on the Web site of the Cecil Whig, the local newspaper, echoing developments elsewhere.
In Dover, Pa., the school district's decision to disseminate information about an argument that life had an "intelligent design" at its origins prompted civil libertarians to file a lawsuit in December on behalf of several parents. They alleged that the curriculum amounts to an unconstitutional promotion of religious beliefs in the classroom. Debate over evolution and faith in the curriculum also have flared in Charles County and in Cobb County, Ga.
Cecil County school board member William W. Herold, who sparked the local textbook scrutiny, said in a telephone interview before yesterday's action that he wanted schools to give students alternatives to Darwinism.
On the theory of evolution, Herold said: "Personally, I don't believe it's factual. I don't believe it's accurate. . . . All I'm saying is, I believe there are legitimate conflicts [about Darwin's theories], based on the studies of legitimate scientists and biologists, and we should give them consideration."
The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington advocacy group, said critics of the biology textbook had a larger motive. "This is a backdoor effort to bring religion into biology classrooms of Cecil County," Lynn said.
Superintendent Carl D. Roberts said the district's science curriculum, by long-standing policy, omits discussion of the origins of life. The textbook at issue, he said in a telephone interview, includes a passage acknowledging that many world religions teach that life on earth was created by a "supreme being." But that passage is skipped in the classroom.
Roberts said the district's curriculum would be guided by state academic standards and by consensus views of leading scientific organizations.
"Frankly, we have to take our lead from them," Roberts said. "We are teachers. We are educators. We are not scientists. And we are not equipped to make those decisions."