New York Times
October 9, 1999

New Mexico Bars Creationism From State Curriculum


SANTA FE, N.M. -- Bucking recent changes in Kansas and other states that allow public schools to teach alternative views of human development, the New Mexico Board of Education voted overwhelmingly on Friday to limit the statewide science curriculum to the teaching of evolution. The vote effectively made New Mexico the first state in recent years to take a firm stand against the teaching of creationism, which generally recognizes the Bible as the ultimate authority on how the world was formed.

Creationism holds that a divine being created humans and other species a mere 10,000 years ago, while evolutionists say scientific evidence shows that life began almost 4 billion years ago with simple organisms, from which humans and all other forms of life evolved. Until now, teachers had been required to give equal weight to alternative theories -- which in practical terms meant creationism -- in their science classroom discussions. "This gives teachers the political cover they need to teach evolution," said Marshall Berman, the board member who led a three-year campaign to change the policy.

The board voted 14-1 in favor of the change, which will affect the 100,000 children who attend New Mexico's 725 public schools. The lone dissenter, Van W. Witt, objected by arguing that students should be allowed to consider all sides of the debate and then "make up their minds with their parents."

Van W. Witt was the lone dissenter in the 14-to-1 vote by the New Mexico school board Friday to limit the science curriculum to the teaching of evolution. He sat beside another board member, Teresa Davis-McKee.

In the brief debate among board members that preceded the vote, Berman refuted that position, insisting that creationism -- or "intelligent design," as some evolution opponents call it -- is not a comparable theory for teaching in public schools. "If the assumption is there are two sides, I question the assumption," Berman told Witt. "The sense is of creationism as a scientific theory, that it exists as a reliable principle. But it is not based on science."

While the often emotional debate between proponents of creationism and evolution is not new, it was rekindled this summer when the Kansas Board of Education voted to delete almost any mention of evolution from the state's science curriculum. In a similar action, the Education Department of Kentucky deleted the word "evolution" from the state science curriculum, replacing it with the phrase "change over time," which some state teachers interpreted as an attack on widely-accepted scientific principles. Other states, including Alabama and Nebraska, have made other changes that allow for discussion of theories that challenge evolution.

Creationists hailed each of those changes as major victories during a time when the teaching of evolution has enjoyed pre-eminence in most public school districts as a result of a 1987 Supreme Court decision that said states could not compel the teaching of creationism in public schools. In their battles to chip away at the dominance of evolution as the unchallenged explanation of life, creationists have run headstrong into teachers and scientists who have effectively lobbied their state and local school boards, as they have here in New Mexico, to keep evolution at the forefront of classroom discourse.

Flora M. Sanchez, the president of the New Mexico Board, said that since the Kansas decision she had received "a lot of negative input" from scientists and teachers around the state who were uncomfortable with performance standards that required teachers to entertain alternative theories to evolution. Many of the board members felt uneasy with comparisons with Kansas, she said, adding, "So we decided we had to clarify our standards."

Some of that pressure was evident on Friday, during the public comment period that preceded the vote. Eight proponents of the changes, most of them scientists and teachers, urged the board to vote in favor, while three people appeared to raise objections. Bruce Miller, a high school biology teacher who testified before the board, said that he feels more comfortable with a regulation that narrows teaching to theories based on science. "I need it spelled out that I don't have to address a string of silly alternative theories," he said. "With 175 class room days, I don't have time for that."

Another proponent of the change, David E. Thomas, editor of the Newsletter of the New Mexicans for Science and Reason, said that if public schools allowed unscientific theories to be taught, "pretty soon we'll have Holocaust deniers insisting there were no gas chambers."

Cindy Chapman, who teaches first- and second-graders, said the new regulations would even help teachers of the youngest children in public schools whose early knowledge of human development is often shaped by religion and is learned at home. She said she was recently approached by a little boy in class who told her why dinosaurs no longer roam the earth. "He said, 'Because there was no room in the ark,"' Ms. Chapman said. "I don't think he made that up himself."

Among those protesting the new standards was Paul Gammill, a retired engineer and the father of three children who attended Albuquerque public schools. He echoed the concerns of many creationists, telling the board that evolution is "arbitrary and dogmatic." He insisted that his view has nothing to do with religion, but in an interview before his testimony he said a belief in God is not compatible with acceptance of evolution.

While it appeared that most board members had their minds made up before the vote, they listened with rapt attention to Tom Manaster, a retired cab driver from Chicago now living in New Mexico who urged the board to reject any teaching standards beyond what can be proven. "I wouldn't be here if it weren't for good science," he said. "Five years ago I survived a brain tumor. Those doctors had all kinds of religions and beliefs, but they also had some pretty good science."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company