Lawyer says school proposal equates evolution, religion

Lawyer says school proposal equates evolution, religion
Florida could face a legal challenge, he says.
By RON MATUS, St Petersburg Times Staff Writer - 1/15/2008 - original
Can science be like a religion?

In the case of Florida's proposed new science standards, yes, says the lawyer who represented Terri Schiavo's parents and siblings.

Pinellas lawyer David C. Gibbs III wrote in a recent legal memo that by singling out Darwin's theory of evolution as the sole pillar of modern biology, the proposed standards leave no room for other philosophical perspectives and cross the line between science and faith.

Gibbs also argues the proposed standards could face a legal challenge for violating the constitutional separation of church and state.

"Making this gigantic jump moves the evolutionary hypothesis from the realm of science into a philosophical faith-based belief system," Gibbs writes in the five-page memo, which he sent to the state Board of Education last month. "It has fallen into the same trap of which science has accused religion. It posits its entire interpretive rationale on something which is unobservable and untested."

The science-as-religion claim isn't a new criticism of Darwin's theory, which the vast majority of scientists consider to be sound and backed by evidence. But could it become a new legal argument to put the issue back before the courts?

Becky Steele, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, called Gibbs' claim "cockamamy."

"He claims that teaching science, based on well-accepted theories backed by factual evidence, is somehow promoting a particular religion in public school," she said in an e-mail. "Imagine them arguing that the Establishment Clause would be violated by teaching a calculus class that only expresses the 'worldview' of mathematics without any sense of the divine."

Gibbs wrote his memo just as the debate over the proposed science standards began heating up last month. The current standards, adopted in 1996, do not mention the word "evolution," and many scientists and science teachers consider them inadequate.

The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the proposed standards Feb. 19.

Gibbs was unavailable for comment, and his firm referred questions to another lawyer, Barbara Weller, and to a curriculum specialist, Francis C. Grubbs.

Weller works for Gibbs' law firm and the Christian Law Association of Seminole, which specializes in religious liberty issues and is run by Gibbs' father. Grubbs works as a consultant to both entities and helped Gibbs craft the recent memo.

Gibbs represented Schiavo's parents in their unsuccessful battle against a court order to remove their severely brain-damaged daughter's feeding tube. She died in a Pinellas Park hospice in 2005.

Weller and Grubbs said Friday that they're preparing a more detailed memo, which they expected to complete Monday and forward to the Board of Education. Neither returned a call Monday.

Asked if they foresaw filing a lawsuit, Weller said, "We're certainly not there yet. ... We're just pointing out there's a problem, and it could be a legal problem."

The ACLU has also raised the possibility of a lawsuit if the Board of Education adopts a science curriculum that "includes particular religious groups' beliefs about the origins of the universe."

Evolution has spawned a number of legal battles over the decades. And to date, its critics have come up short.

In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court in Edwards vs. Aguillard struck down a Louisiana law that required creationism - the belief that a god or gods created the Earth, the universe and life - be taught alongside evolution. Current Justice Antonin Scalia was one of two who dissented.

In 2005, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III ruled in a highly publicized case, Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District, that intelligent design is a form of creationism. Proponents of intelligent design argue that some systems found in nature - such as the human eyeball - are too complex to have formed without the intervention of an unnamed designer.

Jones also ruled that the Dover, Pa., school district violated the Constitution when it required that intelligent design be taught as an alternative theory.

Many others besides Gibbs have referred to Darwin's theory as a leap of faith. Former St. Petersburg City Council member Bill Foster, for example, used the term "Religion of Darwin" in a letter he recently sent to the Pinellas County School Board, urging the board to expose students to alternative theories.

Grubbs insisted that the Gibbs memo was an attempt to free the draft standards from bias and not to put faith into the mix.

"We are not injecting creationism or intelligent design into this. That's not our objective," he said.

But he added, "Our objective, I suppose, leaves the door open for that."

Ron Matus can be reached at or 727 893-8873.

The theories

What is creationism?

The theory that a god or gods created the Earth, the universe and life.

What is intelligent design?

The theory, espoused by English theologian William Paley, that matter, the various forms of life and the world were created by a designing intelligence. The idea prevailed as an explanation of the natural world until the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859.

What is evolution?

The theory, formulated by English naturalist Charles Darwin, that various types of animals and plants have their origin in other pre-existing types and that the distinguishable differences are due to modifications in successive generations.