Brent Yorgey is a 17-year-old senior at Wilson Senior High School in Northwest Washington. In science and social studies classes over the years, he has learned that scientists say man descended from apes in a long and random process called evolution. But he hasn't heard much about what he personally holds true: that God very deliberately created man.
"I do feel a little bit [shortchanged]," said Yorgey, a top student who describes himself as a devout Christian.
Yorgey's experience is similar to that of public school students throughout the Washington region, where state and local authorities mandate the teaching of evolution but say nothing about creationism. Many teachers take pains to call evolution a scientific theory and not universal truth, but standard textbooks express little doubt about its credibility.
Creationism--the doctrine that God created man exactly as described in the Bible's account of Adam and Eve--sometimes comes up in public school class discussions, often sparked by a student's question. Yorgey remembers a brief debate in a ninth-grade social studies class when, he said, he and another student were the only ones to argue that creationism might have some validity.
But officials in area school districts say creationism is not supposed to be taught as an alternative theory to evolution.
The issue, once controversial in American classrooms, was revived recently when state officials in Kansas dropped the teaching of evolution as a required component of the education curriculum and when Kentucky officials dropped the word "evolution" from curriculum guidelines and replaced it with the phrase "change over time." The New Mexico Board of Education, on the other hand, held Friday that only evolution need be taught in the state's schools.
The dispute resurfaces occasionally in the Washington area, though currently no education officials here are considering going down the same road as Kansas and Kentucky.
"I think the Kansas Board of Education caught everybody by surprise," said Gary Heath, chief of the arts and sciences branch for Maryland's Department of Education. He said he can't remember any state debates on the topic in the past 15 years.
"If you look at any of the national documents, national standards for science or benchmarks designed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, all of those documents include evolution," he said. "That doesn't mean, though, that people shouldn't be sensitive to other viewpoints."
In Virginia, the Christian American Family Association lobbied the Fairfax School Board two years ago to disavow language in a ninth-grade science textbook that equated creationism with astrology, fad diets and other "pseudoscience."
The group was acting on behalf of the parents of a student at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology who said the book, "Biological Science: A Molecular Approach," demeaned the family's belief in the Bible. The board denied the request.
Creationism was also a hot topic during the county's first School Board election in 1995--at least 12 of 35 candidates said they supported teaching creationism in some form. And it was a campaign issue in Prince William and Loudoun counties, though to a lesser degree.
Evolution is taught to public school students through different approaches, sometimes in biology, world history, even English.
Fairfax teaches it as part of a Biology I course developed around state and county curriculum guidelines and guidelines from the National Academy of Science and National Association of Biology Teachers. In the District, social studies classrooms explore both the religious beliefs of creation and the life of Charles Darwin, considered the father of evolution. Biology classes take a more scientific view.
But in many public school classes, creationism is not mentioned.
"We don't ascribe to that at all," said Jim Strandquist, science supervisor for Prince George's County secondary schools. "We tell them that it's not part of the curriculum because we don't consider it science."
In Southern Maryland, school officials say they do not expect everybody to embrace evolution with open arms. "There are teachers who have their own different viewpoints and would probably not want to teach it, but they still go ahead and do it," said Dana Brookhart, St. Mary's County supervisor of science instruction.
In the District, science content specialist Carolyn Kornegay said many teachers and students are devout Christians, "but they don't impose their beliefs on other kids, and we don't include [creationism] in our curriculum."
Nobody knows the exact number, but there are many fundamentalist Christian schools in the area that teach thousands of students the details of evolution--then tell them that the theory is wrong.
Brittany Persinger, 16, who attends Faith Christian School in Sterling, is among the young people in Christian schools who think public school students should learn about creationism.
"They deserve to know the truth, even if they don't choose to believe it," she said.
"We teach what the theory of evolution is," said Robert Thoburn, the school's principal, "and then we teach why it's incorrect."
Thoburn and Gil Hansen, administrator at Fairfax Baptist Temple Academy, say students at their schools are taught that there is no evolution from one species to another and that nobody has ever been able to test evolution in the laboratory.
And any notion that their students are at a disadvantage compared with their public school peers is wrong, they say, noting that their students score higher than the national average on standardized tests, even those with questions about evolution.
Many members of other religious denominations do not take issue with the theory of evolution, believing faith and science are compatible.
The Rev. Peter Weigand, a Catholic priest who heads St. Anselm's Abbey in the District, said Catholic schools teach evolution but tell students God began the process.
Ron Smetanick, head of the science department at the Melvin Berman Hebrew Academy in Montgomery County, taught for 30 years in public schools before joining the Orthodox Jewish school. "I don't treat [evolution] any different than I did in public schools," he said.
At Yorgey's school in the District, Jennifer Satlin-Fernandez, head of the social studies department, said discussions that arise when a student expresses a creationist view are more civil than the acrimonious debates elsewhere. She thinks that's largely because D.C. students are taught to be tolerant of divergent opinions.
"Kids pretty much have a solid understanding that faith is not something that can be argued with and that it can't be proven," Satlin-Fernandez said.
Staff writers Victoria Benning, Jay Mathews, Nancy Trejos and Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.