Origin of the specious

Meet Granite Bay attorney Larry Caldwell. He takes Darwin to court.

Larry Caldwell says he’s using the courts to ensure school kids get the facts about evolution. His critics say Caldwell is peddling creationism in disguise.

Larry Caldwell says he’s using the courts to ensure school kids get the facts about evolution. His critics say Caldwell is peddling creationism in disguise.

Photo By Larry Dalton

It’s been called the biggest battle between religion and evolution since the 1925 Scopes monkey trial. Last week, a federal judge blocked a Dover, Pa., public school district from teaching intelligent design in biology class, saying the curriculum was really “creationism in disguise.”

Watching intently was Granite Bay resident and attorney Larry Caldwell. You may remember Caldwell from his yearlong skirmish with the Roseville Joint Union High School District, his lawsuit against district individuals that continues to wend its way through the courts, and his attempts to get what he calls Quality Science Education for All (QSEA) adopted in the public schools. Caldwell is highly critical of the way evolution is taught in most high-school science classes.

Caldwell has sued other institutions as well in his fight against those he calls “the Darwinists.” Last summer, he threatened a libel lawsuit over an article in California Wild magazine that was critical of creationists. And he’s now suing the University of California, Berkeley, over a Web site designed to help K-12 teachers with their science lessons. He says the UC is using public money to publish “anti-Christian content.”

Boiled down to its essence, Caldwell’s argument against the current teaching of evolution in high-school science classes is this: Both the strengths and weaknesses of evolution should be taught, and currently the weaknesses are glossed over.

Simply put, Caldwell says, “the point is to tell students the truth.”

Asked if he supports the ideas behind intelligent design or the teaching of said philosophy, Caldwell flatly asserted, “We’re not advocating that intelligent design be taught in science classes.”

But Nick Matzke, spokesman for the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), said, “Saying you advocate the teaching of ‘strengths and weaknesses’ of evolution is simply the latest legal fiction that creationists have come up with—the evolution of the argument if you will.”

Matzke was speaking in anticipation of the Dover ruling. “When Dover is overruled, and it will be, they’ll see that the judges are on to intelligent design, and then it will be on to ‘strengths and weaknesses’ or ‘critical analysis’ they’re calling it now.”

“It’s a patently false claim,” Caldwell responded. “NCSE routinely uses this baseless claim to try to discredit anyone who seeks to present any scientific criticism of Darwinian evolution in public schools. NCSE love[s] to focus on speculation about what people like me supposedly plan on advocating in the future, rather than responding to what I am actually proposing.”

Most recently, however, Caldwell has turned his legal sights on UC Berkeley’s “Understanding Evolution” Web site—a site devoted to providing K-12 science teachers with the latest resources to teach evolution.

Representing his wife, Jeanne Caldwell, the suit alleges that the federally funded Web site violates the separation of church and state by using religion to promote evolution. In a direct manner, Caldwell claims, teachers are instructed to put students at ease with accepting evolution, by giving them examples of religious organizations that have publicly stated they have no problem with evolutionary theory.

Specifically, Caldwell charges both the university and the National Science Foundation (NSF) with using “anti-Christian content” in an evolution Web site aimed at K-12 public-school science teachers in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the religious-freedom clauses of the California Constitution. Those clauses come into play because of the more than $500,000 in federal funds taken from the NSF.

“While the government has a legitimate purpose in educating students about the science of evolution,” said plaintiff Jeanne Caldwell, “it’s outrageous that tax dollars would be spent to indoctrinate students into a particular religious view of evolution.”

Not so, says Christopher Patti, university counsel for UC Berkeley. “The obvious and overwhelming purpose of the site is to understand evolution,” Patti told SN&R. “The site does point out that some religions conflict with evolution, and many do not. But there’s nothing illegal about a university making accurate statements about religion for the purpose of educating about a secular idea like evolution.

“We’re trying to present information that teachers can use to help present evolution … and we’re presenting accurate facts. That’s all we’re doing.”

Understanding Evolution project director, Judy Scotchmoor, stays away from addressing the legalities of Caldwell’s claims but takes umbrage with his assertions that the site espouses the use of religion to elicit “belief in evolution.”

“The entire site is focused on science and education,” said Scotchmoor, a former middle-school and high-school science and math teacher for 25 years. “There is one page that responds to the misconceptions that science and religion are incompatible. And we gave a response to that misconception.”

Text taken directly from the site states, “The alleged incompatibility of religion and evolution has been used as a way of persuading people to deny the history of the Earth. The following misconception is dependent on a misunderstanding of the functions of both science and religion.”

Further, the site suggests that teachers explain to students that “Religion and science (evolution) are very different things. In science, only natural causes are used to explain natural phenomena, while religion deals with beliefs that are beyond the natural world.”

Added Scotchmoor, “And it’s a misconception that one has to choose between the two.”

Caldwell’s been busy this year. In the summer, he took on the California Academy of Sciences and the NCSE over an article titled “In My Backyard: Creationists in California,” which appeared in the academy’s California Wild magazine.

The article detailed the history of creationism-vs.-evolution clashes in California, dating back to the late 1970s, placing it in the context of larger cases nationally, dating back to the early 20th century. It also mentioned Caldwell’s crusade against the Roseville school board. Following the article’s publication, Caldwell raised a potential libel claim, naming as defendants the NCSE and the article’s author, Eugenie Scott (who is also the executive director of NCSE).

“At stake is whether our students will receive a quality science education, in which they learn the truth about evolution, or a science indoctrination, in which the truth is hidden from them,” Caldwell wrote at the time.

And he won, sort of. The academy agreed to “permanently remove” all online access to the original Scott article while also agreeing to publish a lengthy letter by Caldwell, outlining his grievances. His letter, along with a much shorter letter by Scott detailing four errors she found that pertained to Caldwell and correcting them, ran in later print and online editions of the magazine.

Caldwell sent out a celebratory press release: “Darwinists need to get the message: engage in civil discourse without defamation or prepare to answer in court.”