By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
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?' "
While in many metropolitan areas inner urban neighborhoods are reliably more liberal and rural areas reliably more conservative, fast-growing suburban or exurban places, with their promise of large numbers of votes and unformed affiliations, have become a coveted demographic for politicians on both sides.
In the 2004 presidential election, 97 of the 100 fastest-growing counties voted for George W. Bush. On the other hand, slightly older suburbs, such as Fairfax County, voted Democratic for the first time since 1964.
Exactly what shapes the political character of a suburb is a matter of debate.
In Cobb, County Board of Commissioners Chairman Sam Olens said the controversies over social issues do not reflect typical values held there, but he said that for household logistics, the county "tilts conservative."
"A lot of us moved here because of the low taxes, low crime and great education," he said. "We're all sick and tired of paying too much in taxes."
Robert E. Lang, who studies growth and demographics at Virginia Tech, says that people generally select a place to live based on practical reasons -- proximity to work, prices, size and so on. But politically, there appears to be a little bit of "self-selection going on," he said. "People like to move to places where they know the people will think like they do."
Cobb is solidly Republican -- 62 percent of voters cast ballots for Bush in 2004 -- but there is enough political diversity to create strong and sometimes unexpected conflicts.
After the anti-gay resolution was passed, the board chairman's daughter held a news conference to say she is a lesbian -- and to denounce the measure. And the current county chairman, Olens, who is in the position of having to defend the commission prayers for invoking Jesus, is Jewish.
He defended the prayers by saying that leaders from all the local houses of worship are invited to offer the invocation.
"My preference would be a nonsectarian prayer," he said. "But it's not my place to tell a minister how he should lead us in prayer."
While Cobb County is home to Kennesaw State University, a major facility for Lockheed Martin Corp. and numerous high-tech businesses, a substantial number of residents appear to have profound doubts about the scientific establishment's embrace of evolution, which the National Academy of Sciences describes as "the central unifying concept of biology."
Wes McCoy, a teacher at North Cobb High School who has surveyed classes for a doctoral dissertation on teaching evolution, estimates that a third of students there are uncomfortable with the subject.
"I'm sure they're told by their parents, 'Go ahead and listen to the lessons, but you don't have to believe them,' " said McCoy, who holds workshops for teachers on how to present evolution. "Some teachers aren't comfortable with it themselves."
When Cobb County turned to selecting new biology textbooks in late 2001, that widespread unease developed into parent anger that spurred the school board to action.
Sparked by her son's interest in dinosaurs, Rogers read several books casting doubt on evolution science, including "Icons of Evolution" by Jonathan Wells and "Darwin on Trial" by Phillip E. Johnson. Once she saw the textbooks under consideration, she was appalled.
"Humans are fundamentally not exceptional because we came from the same evolutionary source as every other species," she read from one during an interview.
"That offends me," she said. "That has no business being in a science textbook. That's religion."
She points to another passage, in "Biology: Concepts & Connections," that she says is irreverent. The passage suggests that had human knees and spines been "designed" for our bipedal posture, rather than borrowed from four-legged ancestors, they probably would "be less subject to sprains, spasms and other common injuries."
Finding fault with the design of humans exasperates her.
"That's slamming God," she said.
Her disappointment with the texts led her to launch a petition drive among friends and church groups that netted 2,300 signatures. After a contentious meeting, the school board voted to affix the stickers to several textbooks, warning: "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."
Board members described it as a way of accommodating the divergent views in the community -- to "safeguard" the feelings of the students -- while continuing to teach evolution.
But after hearing Selman's case, presented by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper in January ordered the stickers removed.
An "informed, reasonable observer would interpret the Sticker to convey a message of endorsement of religion," he wrote. The sticker "sends a message to those who believe in evolution that they are political outsiders."
The school board has appealed, and arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit are scheduled for Thursday.