Florida’s Greatest Menace VI: Misconceptions, misinterpretations and misinformation

(This is the sixth part in the Florida’s Greatest Menace series. For an introduction to the series, go here.)

Status report

Rev. C.E. Winslow was a busy man as 1979 rushed to a close. He hopped from school board meetings in Hillsborough County to meetings in Pinellas County while also making plans for Manatee County. At about 72 years old he still plowed along at full speed as an influential support network grew up around him. He now headed a group called Compatriots for Academic/Religious Freedom. It’s unknown if this is just a name change from the previous Committee for Creationism in Education or a new group. As local public opinion swung in his favor, inserting creationism into the public school curriculum was now a real possibility. Winslow just needed to find a school board willing to take the leap, and it looked like Hillsborough County was primed for his final push.

On Dec. 4 the Hillsborough school board granted Winslow 15 minutes to state his case. He came prepared with a stack of papers and an impassioned speech overflowing with confidence and enthusiasm. One document he presented to the board members was entitled “Reverse Academic/Religious Discrimination Violates Student’s Rights.” It was Winslow’s belief, based on exhaustive research into several U.S. Supreme Court cases, that students were being denied the right to freely express and explore religious belief in tax-supported schools. Children should be allowed to pray and spend equal time on both evolution and creationism. He chewed up 10 minutes of his allotted time reciting a litany of quotes from Supreme Court justices and court documents that appeared to support his stance. At one point, a board member interrupted Winslow to let him know his time was running out. Finally, Winslow got to his point.

He presented to the board a “Resolution for Creation and Prayer in Public Education – Supreme Court Approves.” Winslow wanted the board to implement a policy to correct what he saw as a violation of constitutional rights. The resolution also called for textbooks to include creationism concepts, and requested that the media “cooperate in clarifying prevailing misconceptions and misinterpretations of court rulings in relevant cases.” The retired reverend then demanded to know the status of religious freedom in Hillsborough schools.

The response was fascinating. The school board meeting minutes give the impression that superintendent Raymond Shelton and assistant superintendent for instruction Frank Farmer were giving a full report to Winslow, and there seemed to be a tone of defensiveness. They said that whereas prayer was not mandatory, there was nothing stopping “mature students” from reading material concerning creationism. However, creationism was not part of the curriculum. The pair reminded the board that Winslow had donated several creationism-based biology textbooks to Hillsborough County in 1975, and those books were still available throughout the district as reference material.

And then came this statement from Farmer: “The vast majority of the science teachers in this school district were church members (primarily of the Protestant faith) and had had the opportunity as science teachers and religiously-oriented people to face this particular problem.”

Winslow’s final comment of the meeting sniped back at the superintendents a bit. Even though Winslow’s donation of creationism-based textbooks a few years back was a positive thing, he believed “board members were misinformed about what is being taught in the schools inasmuch as some students were being taught the theory of evolution and not being allowed to discuss creation on the basis that it is religion.” That’s a big no-no, claimed Winslow, since his extensive research suggested that the Supreme Court itself had decreed that it was not right to teach one without teaching the other.

With his resolution before the board and the conversation now shifting into high gear, Winslow stood back and let the board members take it from there. Hillsborough County was well on its way to a brief appearance in the national spotlight as the latest creationism vs. evolution battlefield.

Hidden scientific evidence

Board member Roland H. Lewis had an interesting take on where religion and science intersect. The board meeting minutes report Lewis’ comments: “Some people do not understand that the Bible is a book which deals with history, literature, and science. It is the first published book which taught that the world was round, that the ocean was in a circle of the deep, and that the earth hangs on nothing. Because these scientific facts are found in the Bible does not make the scientific truths become religion. He [Lewis] favored giving teachers support to teach creation as a scientific explanation as valid as evolution.”

Lewis then presented a motion for the board to adopt a resolution favoring the teaching of creationism as an alternative in the school district. Overall, Lewis’ fellow board members agreed that creationism needed to be added to the curriculum, but there were some differing opinions on how it should be implemented. Lewis thought that evolution and creationism should be taught side by side. Board member Sam Rampello agreed that creationism should be taught, but that it shouldn’t be presented as an alternative. Rather, he preferred to have the district administration “bring in the theory of creation as one of the methods taught in biology, social science, and other sciences.” Board member Joe E. Newsome focused on textbooks, expressing his desire to only purchase textbooks that cover both evolution and creationism.

Asst. Superintendent Farmer then boldly spoke up on behalf of the district’s teachers. He asked that the science teachers be given a chance to react to the proposed resolution before the board approved it. The consensus of the board thought that was a good idea, but Lewis had serious reservations. The board meeting minutes report: “Member Lewis was willing to abide by decision to defer action on his motion, but did not want ‘nothing’ to happen. It was his judgment that people who believe evolution through the years had hidden scientific evidence, but the press had followed these things and was reporting the discoveries that are being made now that had been hidden for nearly a hundred years or over. The more discoveries made, the more valid the creation explanation becomes.”

A representative from the Classroom Teachers Association, Sam Rosales, spoke up at this point to caution the board against making a decision that it was perhaps not qualified to make, and that such a decision could run against the grain of academic freedom. Essentially, teachers could be forced to teach something they don’t feel they should. This apparently rumpled Rampello’s feathers a bit. The board meeting minutes report: “Even though Board might not like what the teachers are saying, he [Rampello] thought they should be heard. He hoped that teachers were trained in teaching the theory of evolution as well as creation without indicating their opposition to one or the other. He did not believe certain teachers should be told to choose one or the other.”

Board chairman Ben H. Hill finally wrapped up the discussion by declaring action on the topic deferred until the next scheduled board meeting in two weeks.

They are both science

On Dec. 12 Winslow stood before the Pinellas County school board with a shorter but no less impassioned demand for students to be given their constitutional rights to “freedom of speech and inquiry and of belief.” Once again he found a sympathetic audience. Board member Calvin Hunsinger moved to adopt the resolution Winslow gave the board. An article in the St. Petersburg Times says that then a “parade of ministers and a college biology teacher” spoke in support of the resolution. The teacher was Colin Nevin from St. Petersburg Junior College, who told the board that “a growing number of scientists” support scientific creationism more than evolution.

Much like the Hillsborough school board, the Pinellas board was all for incorporating creationism into the curriculum, but decided to table the motion in order to do further study. There were some nagging questions to consider. For instance, the St. Petersburg Times reported:

“I have no qualms for teaching alternatives,” Supt. Gus Sakkis said. But he questioned whether the schools would also have to teach all the theories of creation espoused by the world’s religions.

“Indeed, within our own Christian religion, there is some variance in interpretation,” Sakkis said.

A few days later the Hillsborough County school board faced a dilemma as they revisited the creationism subject: a packed house. Before they could even tackle the deferred resolution, they needed to debate how to handle the all the people who had shown up to speak. Eventually, it was decided that each person would get seven minutes. Not only were citizens lined up to speak, but the school district administration had been flooded with calls and letters over the previous couple of weeks. They had stacks of papers sorted into pro-creationism and pro-evolution piles. Position papers came in from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Association of Biology Teachers, the National Science Teachers Association, and the American Association of Biology Teachers.

At the direction of the school board, the district staff had written a proposed statement concerning the teaching of creationism and evolution for the board to adopt. It said:

The Hillsborough County Public Schools will teach as a part of the curriculum in accordance with objectives adopted, evolution as a theory, not as a fact, and will direct teachers to inform students that other theories of the origin of the species based on faith do exist and occupy an important part of our body of knowledge and human thought and are not incompatible with the theories of evolution. Students in the Hillsborough County Public Schools will be encouraged to examine and study these theories based upon faith, utilizing resource materials that are available in all schools.

Superintendent Shelton told the board that he believed in separation of church and state, and that taking creationism any further than the proposed statement suggests would invite trouble.

The board members didn’t just disagree with the statement, they hated it. They scolded the superintendent and his staff for giving them a statement that was so far off from what they asked for. The statement was biased toward evolution said board member Lewis. He had serious problems with the use of the word “faith” in association with any theory other than evolution. Board meeting minutes reported: “He [Lewis] said the issue was not whether it is faith or science; they are both science and it takes as much faith to believe evolution because there is no foundation for it. Accordingly, he felt the statement from the staff was unacceptable because of its being biased.”

Board member A. Leon Lowry agreed, saying that the statement “totally ignored the other side.” Joining the chorus was board member Marion Rodgers, who said the statement was unacceptable to her. She didn’t like how evolution was “focused as being the only thing.” Newsome was adamant that either evolution and creationism would be taught side by side or neither would be taught at all.

Shelton weathered the onslaught as best he could with support from district supervisor of science Nancy Marsh. They both tried to explain to the board members that evolution had clear scientific support, and that the current biology curriculum was based on objectives from the State Compendium of Science Objectives and had gone through a long, arduous approval process. It was also pointed out that teachers usually preface evolution lessons with a statement that the concepts were not meant to interfere with students’ religious beliefs in any way.

The board members didn’t take too kindly to this resistance. Lewis claimed that he had “at least six or seven years of concentrated study in both the theory of evolution and the theory of creation.” Chairman Hill reread the resolution Rev. Winslow had given the board at the previous meeting in an apparent effort to explain to the district staff what they should be working toward. The superintendent and his science supervisor were obviously on the losing end of this fight. Out of seven board members, not a single one went on the record in support of the superintendent’s view.

A perfect example

Then the public comment period was opened. Seven people spoke, with only two supporting the teaching of evolution without creationism. One of those two was a courageous student from Plant Senior High School, Lawrence Linick. Unfortunately, his appearance set him up as a target for the other speakers. A college professor claimed that Linick “was totally misinformed,” and an attorney said that “the young man from Plant High School was a perfect example of what was happening because of the failure of the educational system to provide an alternative theory which clearly exists.”

One point brought up by the pro-creationism speakers was that scientific creationism was “based on hard, cold scientific facts” and had been for 10 to 15 years. Supposedly, the working scientists at universities across the country knew this. When the floor was turned back over to the board members, Rampello was upset. He wanted to know why the colleges weren’t training high school teachers about creationism if the professors had been so confident in it for the past decade or more. “If the universities are remiss in that responsibility, he [Rampello] thought they were failing miserably.”

It was obvious that the board was eager to correct perceived wrongs and get creationism into the classroom, but they apparently needed an official position statement produced by the school district staff in order to proceed. Board chairman Hill directed superintendent Shelton to take into consideration all that was said during the meeting and produce an acceptable document. With that said, the meeting was adjourned.

Creationism wasn’t officially in the curriculum in any Florida county yet, but Hillsborough was well on its way with Pinellas cautiously following. In a few months Manatee would also get in line. Meanwhile, the state legislature was faced with yet another scientific creationism bill. The fireworks really start flying in the next installment of Florida’s Greatest Menace.

7 Responses to “Florida’s Greatest Menace VI: Misconceptions, misinterpretations and misinformation”

  1. IvoryGirl Says:

    This is great Brandon,could there be a book in the works?

  2. Brandon Haught Says:

    Maybe, IvoryGirl. But it’s going to take a long time to finish this series. I’m on part 6 and it only covers one month in 1979! There certainly is enough material for a book … sheesh!

  3. PatrickHenry Says:

    We’re living in a time warp.

  4. Bob Calder Says:

    The plot is obvious. What’s the theme and why do the characters behave the same no matter where in the world they live?

  5. S.Scott Says:

    Bob – They are robots.

  6. Bernard Kirzner, M.D. Says:

    In the first place, God made idiots.
    That was for practice.
    Then he made school boards.

    Mark Twain

  7. Joel Johnson Says:

    Very good writing. Well said. Thank you.