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ACLU to Back Faculty Who Stick to Evolution

By Elaine D. Briseño
Journal Staff Writer
    Rio Rancho teachers should not be afraid to say "no" to teaching intelligent design in their science classes.
    That's the message in an American Civil Liberties Union e-mail sent to 80 middle, mid-high and high school science teachers this week. The organization also offered to assist any teacher disciplined because of the matter.
    The letters also were sent to the five members of the Rio Rancho Public Schools Board of Education, ACLU executive director Peter Simonson said.
    The board in August adopted a policy allowing alternative ideas to evolution to be discussed in science classes. The policy does not specifically mention intelligent design.
    "A vast majority of teachers are feeling downtrodden by the environment the school board has created," Simonson said in a phone interview Wednesday.
    "We are here to support them. ... We want them to know that they have some control over the situation and the Constitution gives that control."
    The letter asserts that the teaching of intelligent design as scientific theory violates students' constitutional rights. It says the topic should be taught by philosophy or religious teachers and balanced with the study of other religions.
    "To focus only on intelligent design to the exclusion of other religions would give rise to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion," the letter reads.
    RRPS spokeswoman Kim Vesely defended the district Wednesday. She said it is meeting state standards because it teaches evolution.
    "The letter creates the misleading impression that the policy requires the teaching or discussion of intelligent design," she said. "The policy does not require that intelligent design be taught. We are not teaching intelligent design and we are not asking teachers to initiate discussion of intelligent design."
    Intelligent design describes a belief that life forms are too complex to be explained solely by Darwinian evolutionary theory. It points to intentional creation, presumably divine.
    The Rio Rancho policy on science education states that when consistent with state standards, "discussions about issues that are of interest to both science and individual religious and philosophical beliefs will acknowledge that reasonable people may disagree about the meaning and interpretation of data."
    Simonson said although intelligent design is not mentioned in the policy, opponents believe it is a way to slip religion into science class. He said the policy's supporters have strong Christian ties.
    "No one in the community seems to acknowledge this is anything but an attempt to teach intelligent design in the science classroom," he said.
    The policy's author, board member Don Schlichte, has denied the allegation. Schlichte, head pastor of Rio West Community Church, said the policy is intended to encourage critical thinking, a cornerstone of good science.
    Simonson said the ACLU is not discouraging critical thinking.
    "Students can ask questions that inspire critical thinking and should," he said. "But the subtext (to Rio Rancho students) is that the alternative explanation should be intelligent design."
    Some Rio Rancho students are being prompted to provoke discussion leading to intelligent design, according to the ACLU letter. Simonson said that during an event Friday at Destiny Center church in Rio Rancho, students were encouraged to question evolution. Schlichte was at the Friday meeting, leading the closing prayer, he said.
    The ACLU letter encourages teachers to respond to those students "with a brief comment on why intelligent design is not science— and therefore not appropriate material for the science classroom— and then direct the class to legitimate science curriculum."
    It adds, "Teachers should not be afraid to refuse to discuss or teach intelligent design in their science classes."
    Schlichte on Wednesday denied that students at Friday's meeting were told to provoke discussions on intelligent design. He said students were given a list of specific questions to ask during science class but were also told to respect their teachers and not to be controversial for controversy's sake.
    He said he agreed that teachers should not be afraid to refuse to discuss or teach intelligent design.
    "That was never the intention of the policy to teach intelligent design," he said. "It's to teach good science."
    The Rio Rancho school administration and staff are still discussing how exactly the new policy will translate into the classroom, Rio Rancho High School SciMatics Academy head Dan Barbour said Wednesday.
    "We have not resolved it," he said.
    Simonson said he had received only one e-mail from a teacher and it opposed the ACLU's stand.
    The middle school teacher, he said, felt Christians were discriminated against and that the intelligent design viewpoint should be allowed in science class.

E-MAIL Journal Staff Writer Elaine D. Briseño