(This is the seventh part in the Florida’s Greatest Menace series. For an introduction to the series, go here.)
The April 22, 1980 meeting of the Hillsborough County school board was a marathon one. The meetings the previous December paled in comparison to the flood of people wanting to make their opinions heard in April. The school board was buried under a deluge of letters and petitions. Some of the more interesting items the board received were:
Statement from the Tampa Jewish Federation standing firm in its endorsement of the principle of separation of church and state and opposition to teaching of material in the realm of religious doctrine as a part of the science curriculum in the public schools system.
Petition with twenty signatures of members of the Loyalty Class of Idlewild Baptist Church of Tampa requesting the teaching of creation in schools as given in the Bible.
Eleven petitions from science teachers in 11 senior high schools with a total of 79 signatures, out of a possible 106 science teachers in senior high schools of Hillsborough County expressing support of the resolution of the National Science Teachers’ Association and the Florida Association of Science Supervisors (which opposed mandating the teaching of non-valid science theories) and resolving that creationism is a non-science theory.
Once the public comment period was opened, 32 people took turns trying to convince the school board of their views. There were a mix of scientists, pastors, students, parents, teachers and concerned citizens. The comments ran that gamut of appeals to emotion, appeals to reason, and appeals to public opinion. There was plenty of finger pointing as various speakers sought to correct the statements of previous speakers. When the comment period was finally closed, 11 people had spoken on behalf of evolution, 18 spoke on behalf of creationism, and a few offered cryptic statements that were hard to place in either camp.
Finally, superintendent Raymond Shelton (pictured) was given an opportunity to report to the school board the results of his staff’s research into the matter. He explained that there was a fundamental disagreement between supporters of evolution and supporters of creationism: evolution relies on natural laws whereas creationism explains origin in terms of a supernatural creator. Shelton said, “Evolutionists object to the teaching of creationism as a part of science curriculum because the theory was not derived from the scientific method.”
The board had previously instructed Shelton to figure out the best way to incorporate creationism into Hillsborough’s schools. To do so, Shelton based his research on a broad question: “What are the appropriate disciplines for the inclusion of both theories in the curriculum?” Based on Shelton’s comments during the meeting leading up to this one, it was clear that he and his school science supervisors were dead set against inserting creationism into any science classes. But that conviction was put to the test against a determined school board that disagreed. It’s interesting to watch Shelton attempt various tactics to please his bosses while remaining true to his convictions that creationism was a religious view that would plow right through the wall of separation between church and state. This time around the superintendent made it clear that he was working to find a place for creationism in the overall school curriculum – more or less in keeping with the board’s wishes – but that he was trying to keep it out of the science classroom.
As directed by the school board, Shelton offered a couple of position statements for the members to consider and possibly adopt:
In the area of biology, the Hillsborough County Instructional Program will continue to emphasize those theories derived by the scientific process and recognized by the scientific community as appropriate for science. Evolution will be taught as a theory, not as a fact, and the nature of a theory will be thoroughly taught.
Teaching of non-scientific theories or origins as creationism will be accomplished in courses designed to explore man and his ideas.
Based on these position statements, the superintendent recommended that a committee of science teachers, social studies teachers and lay citizens should be formed and tasked with determining where in the overall curriculum “non-scientific theories” would be taught. Additionally, any teacher that would thus be required to teach creationism would then need to attend special training concerning the teaching of controversial materials.
The purpose of the April 22 meeting was to allow the public to have its say. The board members refrained from making any comments, and they agreed to study the information presented and make a decision in a week. The meeting was finally adjourned at five minutes till midnight.
Causing the nation to fall
One week later the board was back in session. Before the evolution subject was addressed, though, the board handled other science-related chores. Ironically, the Governor had proclaimed May 2-3 as Hillsborough County Science Connection Days. The board meeting minutes stated: “The Board concurred with the governor’s Proclamation on Hillsborough County Science Connection Days in consideration of the work of the Science Steering Committee of Hillsborough County and its efforts to increase the appreciation of science and science education.”
The board was then treated to a presentation from county supervisor of secondary science Nancy Marsh concerning the Science Olympics and science demonstrations by a group of elementary students. The board chairman thanked the kids and then moved on to the main event.
The superintendent again presented the position statements and recommendations from the previous week’s meeting and then braced himself for a tongue lashing. He didn’t have to wait long.
Board member Roland H. Lewis was the first to wag his finger at Shelton and his staff. He took offense to creationism being referred to as non-scientific. It was inconceivable to him that the staff had done so much research and yet still came to such an erroneous conclusion. Evolution was the idea that was unscientific and untrue, he said. He didn’t want creationism relegated to an elective class that no one has to take. Something that stuck out to Lewis during the previous week’s public comments was how some speakers claimed that inserting creationism into science courses would violate separation of church and state, but allowing creationism to be taught in other courses would be OK. To Lewis, this demonstrated that those speakers were not being objective and had ulterior motives. Lewis scolded the superintendent for giving the board a position statement that was simply a reworded version of one the board had soundly rejected a few months prior.
Other board members then piled on. Joe E. Newsome said that creation or evolution could be a science or a religion and it was biased to say that one is scientific and the other is not. Marion S. Rodgers thought that this was by far the most important decision ever to come before the school board. The board meeting minutes report: “Member Rodgers said she believed in this nation under God and felt strongly that continued debate would separate the creator from the nation and would cause the nation to fall.” Sam Rampello said he had read some creationist textbooks and couldn’t understand how they could in any way violate separation of church and state.
Shelton once again explained that evolution was based on natural laws and creationism relied on reference to a divine creation, “which you cannot explain without reference to a designer, a planner, a creator, or a supernatural being.” He then made an interesting disclosure: “Superintendent Shelton emphasized that he was a creationist, but as superintendent of schools he had to recommend a curriculum designed within the laws as interpreted by the courts in this country.”
Lewis disputed Shelton’s view. He relentlessly pounded on evolution as a highly unscientific idea that was propped up by a handful of elite scientists. Essentially, any Ph.D. candidate who didn’t accept evolution wouldn’t attain a doctorate from those who control his or her fate. As a result, evolution was firmly embedded in the halls of science without being challenged as the clear sham it is.
They can’t believe it is happening
Shelton and his staff had taken heavy criticism ever since the issue of creationism had come up, but he finally received support during this meeting. A. Leon Lowry mirrored the superintendent’s thinking in that he believed wholeheartedly in creation, but didn’t think it should be mandated in a science course. Cecile W. Essrig also spoke up, saying that Shelton’s proposed position statements were a positive, open-ended approach that could work. Board chairman Ben H. Hill added his voice in support of the position statements, saying educators should be trusted to do the jobs they’re trained for.
Marsh, the science supervisor, and Lewis then got into a little debate. Marsh argued that creationism was not science and didn’t belong in the science classroom and Lewis claimed that there was no scientific evidence for evolution.
The debate was then cut off by a motion to vote on acceptance of the superintendent’s position statements. It failed 3-4.
Lewis then presented a new motion:
That the staff accept appropriate materials from interested publishers, scientists, and lay persons and analyze its instructional resource value in instituting a dual or multi-model approach to teaching about origins in science and other disciplines of the school system’s elementary and secondary curriculum.
That the staff development resources be applied to securing material and consultants to implement this study and that the board receive reports on the staff’s progress until a satisfactory program is available to elementary and secondary students in the classroom, not later than September, 1981.
Staff members in charge of elementary education curriculum quickly pointed out that evolution was not discussed at all at their level. Lewis agreed to strike reference to elementary schools but warned that it would be put back if any evidence ever surfaced that evolution was actually discussed there.
Without further discussion a vote was held on this new motion. It passed 4-3. With that vote, Hillsborough County jumped into the national spotlight. An article in Time magazine sums it all up nicely:
Over opposition from 90% of the local senior high school science teachers, the seven-member Hillsborough County school board in Tampa, Fla., decided to require science classroom time for theories that challenge evolution. Says John Betz, associate professor of biology at the University of South Florida: “These people think evolution is essentially an immoral idea that gives rise to immoral conduct.” Tampa’s teachers “are incredulous,” says Betz. “They can’t believe it is happening.”
And in other news …
Hillsborough County wasn’t the only Florida antievolution hot spot. In Tallahassee state Representative Tom Bush (D-Fort Lauderdale) introduced House Bill 107 entitled “Balanced Treatment for Scientific Creationism and Evolution Act,” which was essentially the same bill filed by Bush the previous year. Speakers who testified during committee meetings on behalf of the bill explained that natural geological features seen today could be explained by a catastrophic flood and that the earth is only thousands rather than billions of years old. It’s unknown whether the lawmakers actually bought these arguments or were merely feeling the heat from mountains of mail and persistent creationist textbook lobbyists, but the House education committee approved the bill 7-6. Unfortunately for Bush and his supporters, there were several other committees to navigate and eventually his bill fizzled out.
Bush didn’t give up, though. He tacked an amendment onto an instructional materials bill:
HB 776, Amendment 4 – on page 2, line 8, strike all and insert New Subsection 3: The Council is herein directed to review, evaluate and pursuant to the provisions of Chapter 233.09 make recommendations to the Department of Education for the purchase of instructional materials that give instruction in Scientific Creationism.
Despite initial support for the amendment – it looks like the House approved it 62-42 – it didn’t make it into law. It should also be noted that in 1980 Bush also introduced a bill requiring prayer in schools. His proposal “called for each teacher to select a student volunteer each morning to lead the class in prayer.” After much heated debate a compromise bill eventually became law that only required a moment of silence for “prayer or meditation.”
In June, Rev. Winslow tried to ride the wave started in Hillsborough County into Manatee County where he found cautious enthusiasm. The Manatee school board asked their lawyer’s advice and were told that if the Bible was used as an educational resource in any way, then the Supreme Court would surely see that as religion and thus unconstitutional. Nonetheless, the board was still hopeful. They decided to hold off on making a decision until they saw how things went in Hillsborough.
Degrading the family
But Winslow persisted. In September he asked the Manatee school board once again to consider teaching creationism and they finally jumped on board. An official procedure was crafted and presented to the board:
“Procedure 400-012 Biology Curriculum.”
“Recognizing that there are two major theories relating to the origins of life, the Manatee County school system will include in its biology curriculum scientific evidence relating to the origins of living organisms and the interpretations of that evidence as presented in the theories of creation and evolution.”
On a vote of 4-1 the procedure was approved and Manatee County became the second Florida school district to allow creationism in the classroom. Unlike Hillsborough County, though, there didn’t seem to be nearly as much fanfare. There apparently were no lengthy public hearings.
However, the lone dissenting voice on the Manatee school board, Marge Kinnan, demanded during an October meeting that any scientific creationism curriculum developed would need to come before the board for approval and be open to public comment. She was concerned when she had read in a newspaper article that the county’s science education supervisor, Robert Kitzmiller, was a scientific creationist. Kinnan wanted to have a hand in selecting the people who would write the new curriculum, but learned that Kitzmiller and five other teachers who wanted to teach creationism had already formed a committee for this purpose. As soon as creationism proponents had been given the green light, they wasted no time, which caught Kinnan by surprise.
With Manatee County marked off as a victory, Winslow moved on to Pinellas County yet again. He had been bugging that school board about creationism for years. He asked the board: “Are you satisfied to brainwash children?” Several other people also spoke, including a representative from the local branch of the Moral Majority. An article in the Evening Independent reported on one parent’s plea:
Winslow was backed by several ministers and parents who want the theory of creation taught in schools. Bruce Love, a parent, said he believes not teaching creation to his children is “a violation of my constitutional rights.” He added that teaching only the theory of evolution “makes the father of my children look stupid” and begged the board “not to degrade the family any further.”
Opposing the teaching of creationism in public schools was League of Women Voters representative Marilyn Baly. She cautioned the board about the legal problems that could arise over separation of church and state violations.
When the meeting was turned back over to the board a motion was made to direct the superintendent to research and report back on the feasibility of creating some alternative curricula. The motion failed 2-5. But that wasn’t the end of it. Board chairman Rev. Arthur Libby Albers used the muscle of his position to override the vote. Despite the board’s decision, he authorized a study of the issue anyway.
No one else was quite as gung-ho as Albers, though. A few months later, superintendent Dr. Gus Sakkis (pictured) admitted to the media that he had yet to follow through on the study and had no plans to do so anytime soon. Opposition to incorporating creationism into lesson plans wasn’t strictly based on religious concerns, either. School board member Betty Hamilton had a practical concern: “We would have to develop our own curriculum, which is very expensive. I don’t know if we can spend taxpayer’s money to develop a curriculum that is basically religious.”
The score to date was two wins and two losses. Pinellas County shunned creationism. The state legislature stymied attempts to mandate creationism statewide. On the other hand, Hillsborough and Manatee Counties had approved the teaching of creationism and just needed to work out how to do it. Winslow’s hard-fought wins were on shaky ground, though. Events elsewhere in the country caused problems for creationism in the Sunshine State as we’ll see in the next installment of Florida’s Greatest Menace.