Christian college headed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell won approval today from a state education committee to have graduates of its biology program, who are taught "the scientific basis for biblical creationism," certified as teachers in Virginia public schools.
If the state Board of Education upholds the decision this summer, it apparently would be the first time Virginia has granted teaching accreditation to a fundamentalist school that includes creationist theory in its curriculum, according to several state educators.
Spokesmen for the Falwell school, Liberty Baptist College in Lynchburg, which has been seeking accreditation for the last three years, immediately hailed the advisory panel's 8-to-1 vote as a major victory for the "academic freedom" of like-minded Christian colleges to teach alternatives to the standard Darwinian theory of man's evolution.
But a biology professor who served on the panel and opposed the recommendation termed it an endorsement of "intellectual garbage."
"This is exactly what I expected given the political climate of the state and the power and prestige of the television gospel," said Dr. William Jones, professor of biology at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, the panel's lone dissenter. "It's giving them [Liberty Baptist] legitimacy to do a lot of things. Their students now have access to the classrooms where they can use the pulpit of the biology lecturn to preach creationist theory."
Other state educators, however, said the ramifications of the approval would not be extensive, because it is not teachers but local school boards that determine what is taught in public schools.
"This is not going to allow their teachers to go into the classrooms with a Bible under their belt," said Roger S. Schrock, state coordinator of the teacher certification program.
The dispute over Liberty Baptist's biology program turned a normally routine procedure for teacher certification into an emotionally charged debate that touched on the fundamental question about the origin of life. Sitting at a conference table cluttered with biology, zoology and other science textbooks, Jones argued there was no scientific basis to the "biblical theology" that man was created through divine intervention.
"Who knows how long these [biblical] stories went around the campfires of the nomadic?" he asked. If Liberty Baptist students are to be certified to teach in the public schools, he said, then the public "has a right to expect that we do not deal in voodoo."
Jones was repeatedly challenged by Terry Weaver, 36, a self-described "divine creationist" and chairman of the Liberty Baptist biology department. Weaver said he holds a doctorate in microbiology from Ohio State University. "In science we deal with that which is observable and testable," he said. "But nobody has ever demonstrated that something nonliving became living. That's not science, that's dogma."
The immediate issue was whether Liberty Baptist, a school of about 3,000 students founded by Falwell in 1971, would have its curriculum approved under a state program that would make its graduates automatically eligible for certification in Virginia secondary schools. Approval also would qualify Liberty Baptist graduates to teach in about 35 other states.
To win certification, a school's program must be evaluated by an advisory "visiting committee" of teachers and college professors to determine whether it meets state educational standards.
After the committee inspected Liberty Baptist last fall, it voted to endorse the school's curriculum in seven subjects. It held up approval of its biology program, in part because of statements in the school's catalogue by Falwell, the school's chancellor. "Liberty Baptist College is a miracle school," Falwell wrote. "Our prayer is that God will help us equip young people who with strength of character and commitment to the absolute truths of the Word of God will go out to shake this world for God."
The catalogue lists five objectives for its natural science and mathematics programs. One is "to give the student a greater appreciation of the omnipotence and omniscience of God through a study of His creation." Another is "to show the scientific basis for biblical creationism."
Critics questioned how such objectives could be reconciled with state instruction requirements in biology, earth science and general science. Weaver said that while instructing its students in creationism, Liberty Baptist also taught standard evolutionary biology. "We are going to give both sides of this important question on the origin of life an equal hearing," he said.
Because Liberty Baptist teaches evolutionary biology, the committee decided to approve the program. Weaver called the decision "a victory for everyone who wants to keep universities as an open forum for debate . . . . It protects the right of everyone to present an opinion that may or may not agree with that of the state."