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Teaching Evolution: A State-by-State Debate

School boards and legislatures across the country are continuing to debate how to teach students about the origins of life on Earth. Policymakers in at least 16 states are currently examining the controversy.

In some states, advocates of "intelligent design" -- the theory that an intelligent force had a role to play in the creation of the universe -- are pushing for the concept to be taught side-by-side with evolution. In other states, schools are incorporating the idea that evolution is "theory, not fact." Below, a look at how the debate is playing out in several states:

Alabama: Biology textbooks in Alabama have included a disclaimer describing evolution as a "controversial theory" since 1996. The Board of Education adopted a softer disclaimer when they revised science guidelines in 2004, describing evolution as one of several scientific theories. But on Nov.10, 2005, the board voted to continue requiring the original disclaimer language.

Arkansas: After a long battle with the American Civil Liberties Union, the School Board In Beebe, Ark., voted in July 2005 to remove stickers placed in high school textbooks that question the theory of evolution. The sticker says that evolution alone is "not adequate to explain the origins of life." School officials had been awaiting an appeals court decision on a similar case in Georgia before taking action, but reportedly were concerned about lengthy and costly litigation.

Georgia: In 2002, biology textbooks in Cobb County, Ga., were labeled with a disclaimer stating that evolution is "a theory, not a fact." The label also said "this material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered." A federal judge declared the sticker unconstitutional in January 2005, but the county school board appealed the decision. The 11th District Court of Appeals will hear the case in mid-December.

Kansas: The state Board of Education has been debating how to teach evolution for years. On Nov. 8, 2005, the board approved new science education standards that call for students to learn about scientific criticisms of evolution theory. While local schools are not required to teach specific theories in the classroom, the standards determine what students are expected to know for state exams.

Kentucky: According to a 1976 law that was revised in 1990, public schools in Kentucky are allowed to teach creationism in addition to evolution. The law states that any teacher who wishes to may teach "the theory of creation as presented in the Bible."

Maryland: In February 2005, school officials in Cecil County voted to use a high school textbook emphasizing the importance of the theory of evolution. The decision came despite the criticisms of several Board of Education members who said students should have access to alternative theories.

Michigan: A bill introduced in the state House of Representatives in September 2005 would require the Board of Education to revise science standards. The bill aims to ensure that students will be able to "use the scientific method to critically evaluate scientific theories including, but not limited to, the theories of global warming and evolution." Legislation attempting to include intelligent design in state science standards failed in 2004.

Minnesota: In December, the Minnetonka school district rejected a proposed change to teaching guidelines that would have emphasized evolution as theory.

Missouri: In the state House of Representatives, two lawmakers have introduced a bill that would require biology textbooks sold in Missouri to include one or more chapters taking a "critical" look at evolution. The bill is currently under review by a House committee on education.

New Mexico: In August, the board of education in Rio Rancho, N.M., adopted science standards encouraging the teaching of alternate theories to evolution in high school. The new policy encourages "discussions about issues that are of interest to both science and individual religious and philosophical beliefs."

Ohio: In 2002, the state's Board of Education voted in favor of a curriculum that emphasizes the "debate" over evolution. The policy requires students to learn that "scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory."

Pennsylvania: In October 2004, the school board in Dover, Pa., voted to require that intelligent design be taught in high-school biology classes. A group of families sued in federal court, saying that the policy violated the constitutional separation between church and state. On Dec. 20, a federal judge agreed. In his ruling, District Judge John E. Jones III wrote that intelligent design is "a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory." The Dover school board had already seen a local backlash: The previous month, Dover voters ousted eight of the nine Republican school board members who had supported inclusion of intelligent design.

South Carolina: In December, the state's Education Oversight Committee struck from high school biology standards wording on how evolution should be taught. The move came at the urging of Republican state senator Mike Fair, who favors teaching intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. Students will continue to learn the current standards while a panel of experts studies whether those standards need to be revised.

Wisconsin: In October 2004, the Grantsburg, Wis., school board added language to its science standards that called for the teaching of " various theories/models of origins." State law mandates the teaching of evolution, but local school districts can create their own curricular standards.

Tara Boyle, Vicki Farden and Maria Godoy contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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