Warning Label on Darwin Sows Division in Suburbia
Sunday, December 11, 2005
MARIETTA, Ga. -- The evolution controversy in this comfortable Atlanta suburb began with one boy's fascination with dinosaurs.
"He was really into 'Jurassic Park,' " his mother recalled. The trouble was, "we kept reading over and over that 'millions and millions of years ago, dinosaurs roamed the earth,' " Marjorie Rogers continued. "And that's where I said, 'Hmm -- wait a second.' "
Like others who adhere to a literal reading of the Book of Genesis, Rogers, a lawyer, believes that Earth is several thousand years old, while most scientists, basing their estimates on the radioactive decay of rock samples, say the planet is billions of years old.
Rogers soon began a quest to challenge what she sees as educators' blind faith in evolution. It evoked a groundswell of support from other residents of this affluent suburb of high-tech office parks and shopping malls, and it pushed the county school board to put warning labels on biology textbooks saying that evolution "is a theory, not a fact."
The measure effectively made Cobb a battleground in the national debate on evolution because the textbook stickers, in turn, prompted a lawsuit in federal court from other parents who see the labels as an unwelcome intrusion of religious thought into public life.
But as both sides prepare to restate their arguments before a federal appeals court this week, many others in Cobb County are having a different reaction: Not again.
The fast-growing suburb of about 650,000 people northwest of Atlanta -- in many ways similar to Loudoun and Fairfax counties in Virginia -- has long shown a remarkable flair for high-profile social controversy.
While other municipalities flirted with banning guns, leaders in Kennesaw, a city in northern Cobb, passed a law requiring heads of household to own a firearm and ammunition. In the '90s, county commissioners approved a resolution frowning on the "lifestyles advocated by the gay community" -- which caused protests and led organizers of the 1996 Summer Olympics to move an event out of the county. Cobb has been to federal court over a Ten Commandments display at the county courthouse and is being sued over the number of invocations at county commission meetings that mention Jesus.
While elsewhere these sorts of social controversies often play out as a clash between urban and rural cultures, what interests political scientists and other onlookers is that the debates in Cobb County pit suburbanites against suburbanites.
The protagonists in the stickers case are typical. Rogers is a BMW-driving graduate of the University of Georgia who plays tennis twice a week and says her life is wrapped around caring for her two sons. Jeffrey Selman, the lead plaintiff in the case to remove the stickers, is a tech worker who belonged to the same tennis group and lives with his wife and son in a Colonial-style subdivision that backs up to a lake. Both moved to Cobb County from elsewhere: Rogers is a self-described "Navy brat," and Selman is Bronx-born.
Neither had been involved in local politics before.
"Marjorie believes and follows blindly," Selman says over a meal at his favorite Chinese vegetarian restaurant. "I question. It's part of my culture. . . . My mother says, 'You got too much principle.' I say, 'Whose fault is that?' "