A Christian fundamentalist college headed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell today apparently lost a fight to have its biology graduates certified as Virginia public school teachers because of the evangelist's recent comments that the students would espouse biblical creationism.
A state Board of Education committee unanimously recommended denying teacher certification to biology graduates of Liberty Baptist College in Lynchburg, reversing an earlier action by another panel. The recommendation was hailed by civil libertarians as a major victory in the nationwide battle over the teaching of creationism, a doctrine that seeks to attribute a scientific basis for the biblical account of the origin of man.
The school's opponents said today's vote, which is expected to be confirmed by the full state education board in July, never would have been achieved had it not been for recent television sermons by Falwell, the president of the Moral Majority and founder and chancellor of Liberty Baptist.
In the sermons, Falwell boasted that state approval for Liberty Baptist's program would enable "hundreds of our graduates to go out into the classrooms teaching creationism" and teaching why the theory of evolution is "invalid and why it's foolish."
"The Rev. Falwell made our case, we're indebted to him," said Judy Goldberg, a lobbyist for the state American Civil Liberties Union who had argued against Liberty Baptist's biology program. "He made it very plain what they intended to do here."
Falwell was preaching in Australia today and could not be reached for comment. Liberty Baptist officials, who sat glumly in the audience while the committee discussed their chancellor's remarks, angrily accused the panel later of an invasion of academic freedom reminiscent of the Soviet Union.
"It's tyranny," said Terry Weaver, a professor of microbiology and self-described "divine creationist" who heads the school's biology program. "To tell Liberty Baptist College that we can't teach creationism and at the same time be certified as teachers is religious oppression. That's what happened here."
The controversy over Liberty Baptist comes in the midst of a far-reaching religious and scientific debate over creationist doctrine that echoes the arguments of the famous Scopes Trial in 1925. Although creationist legislation has been considered by some Virginia legislators, it has never actually been introduced in the General Assembly or pushed by Falwell. During today's debate, ACLU lobbyist Goldberg contended that Liberty Baptist's request to have its graduates certified has represented a "backdoor approach to the teaching of creationism in the public schools."
Last month, a state teachers' visiting committee had voted 8 to 1 to approve the biology program, an action which, if upheld by the state Board of Education, would have automatically certified its graduates as public school teachers in Virginia and 35 other states. The panel took that action after Weaver and other Liberty Baptist officials assured it that the school met state standards, which require the teaching of standard courses in biology, earth science and general science.
While acknowledging that creationism was a basic part of the school's curriculum, Weaver had said standard evolutionary biology was given an "equal hearing."
Members of the teachers education advisory committee, which reviews the panel's recommendations, clearly were disturbed by transcripts of Falwell's sermons, which appeared to give a different account. Several members said Falwell's remarks were "inconsistent" and "contradictory" with Weaver's testimony.
"We're talking about the teaching of dogma in the public school classroom," said Walter J. Mika, the president of the Virginia Education Association and panel member. "This entire issue has been clouded by Falwell's comments."
State education officials said that, while the Liberty Baptist issue will come before the full Board of Education in July, they are unaware of an advisory committee recommendation ever being reversed.