Liberty Baptist College, founded by TV evangelist Jerry Falwell and dedicated to teaching the "scientific basis for Biblical creationism," today won provisional approval for its biology graduates to teach in Virginia public schools.
The State Board of Education's 7-to-2 vote overriding the recommendations of its advisory committee was denounced by critics who argued it would allow religious dogma into public schools and violate the principle of separation of church and state.
As a result of the action, biology graduates of Falwell's self-proclaimed "miracle school" in Lynchburg with 3,000 students, automatically will be qualified to be hired as teachers in Virginia and 35 other states with which the state has reciprocal agreements.
The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union quickly threatened a lawsuit over the issue. "The board has been snookered," charged Chan Kendrik, ACLU state director. "They Liberty Baptist have always taught creationism and they always will."
Liberty Baptist president A. Pierre Guillermin hailed the vote as an important victory for religious fundamentalists. "It's a step in the right direction for academic freedom in the state of Virginia if not the nation," he said.
Board members said their vote was justified on grounds that Liberty Baptist officials had promised to change its curriculum and revise its catalogue to purge references to creationism, a doctrine that disputes the Darwinian theory of evolution and upholds the Book of Genesis account of God's creation of man as a scientific explanation for his origin.
The board granted the certification for one year only and announced that it intended to monitor the school's compliance closely during that period. "The college may not represent that certification constitutes approval of its purpose or philosophy," said board chairman Thomas R. Watkins.
Immediately after the vote, Guillermin said in an interview that the promised alterations were simply a "reorganization" and not did not signify changes in the basic purpose of the school. "We have not really changed our content as to what we teach," said Guillermin. "We don't plan to give it [creationism] any less emphasis."
The dispute over what is taught at Liberty Baptist turned a normally routine process for teacher certification into a year-long, emotionally charged controversy that attracted nationwide attention and took on symbolic significance in the ongoing battle over what its proponents call scientific creationism.
In April, a committee of the state board voted to recommend certifying Liberty Baptist's biology program after school officials insisted that, while teaching creationism as a valid theory explaining man's origins, it also offered the standard evolutionary biology courses required by the state.
Within days of that vote, Falwell, the school's chancellor, gave a nationwide television sermon proclaiming the recommendation as a milestone for the creationist cause. "So now we, with God's help, want to see hundreds of our graduates go out into the classrooms teaching creationism," Falwell said. "Of course, they'll be teaching evolution. But teaching why it's invalid and why it's foolish."
After those remarks, which some board members found inconsistent with school officials' assurances that biological evolution theory was taught in classes, a higher-level board advisory panel recommended against certification.
Liberty Baptist officials then began a lobbying campaign to win approval of its program. They testified that Falwell, despite his title, did not set school policy..
In the end, several school officials said privately today, board members wearied of the controversy and concluded it had been blown out of proportion. Roger Schrock, administrator of the teacher approval program, said the school had only a handful of biology education students and that school curricula are set by local boards, not by individual teachers.
Walter Mika, former president of the Virginia Education Association and chairman of the advisory committee whose recommended rejection was overruled today, said these factors did not alleviate his concerns. The board's vote -- when combined with earlier actions approving other aspects of Liberty Baptist's curriculum -- opens the door for all of the school's education majors, about 800, to enter the public classrooms, Mika said.
"And once a teacher is out there," he said, "they are in a closed classroom and very few people know what's going on besides themselves and the students."