COLUMBUS - In an abrupt turnaround yesterday, the Ohio Board of Education voted 11-4 to send back to the drawing board controversial language in its science curriculum that critics charged sets up a debate between evolution and creationism in the classroom.
Faced with threats of litigation and Gov. Bob Taft's recent suggestion that the 10th-grade life sciences lesson plan be submitted to legal review, several board members changed position and voted to eliminate the language.
Robin Hovis, a board member from Millersburg, argued that Ohio could not afford to wait for a legal opinion in the wake of December's federal court ruling that struck down as unconstitutional the curriculum in a Dover, Pa., school district that mandated the teaching of "intelligent design."
"It's on the shelf as a model lesson plan, and we put it there," Mr. Hovis said. "We lay a Dover trap for schools if we leave it on the shelf."
The concept of intelligent design generally holds that the creation of life on Earth was too complex to have occurred by happenstance and that some unnamed guiding hand had to be involved.
Critics have charged that intelligent design is creationism in disguise, and has no place in science class next to Charles Darwin's widely accepted theory that life evolved over a long period of time from a single-cell organism.
"I don't understand why the scientific community is so afraid of this," said Michael Cochran, a board member from Blacklick who voted to keep the language.
"They control the classrooms," he said. "They control the curriculum. They control the textbooks. Why are they so afraid? That has always puzzled me."
The board voted to remove the language from both the broad standards spelling out what students are expected to learn as well as the specific, optional lesson plan spelling out how it could work in the classroom.
A board committee will later recommend new language to take its place.
The move came as the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to Toledo Public Schools demanding that the district stop teaching the concept in science class.
"The scientific community has, time and again, largely refuted purported evidence supporting intelligent design," said Ohio ACLU Legal Director Jeffrey Gamso, of Toledo. "By continuing to allow teachers to implement intelligent design into the science curriculum, educators are misinforming Ohio's children on the fundamental principles of science."
Patricia Princehouse, an evolution biology lecturer at Case Western Reserve University, said the board's action leaves schools that continue to discuss intelligent design in science class without the legal cover afforded by state-sanctioned standards.
"If teachers come in tomorrow and teach this material, they are not aligned with the standards, and they are in violation of the U.S. Constitution," she said.
The board approved the broader science standards in 2002 that, for the first time, mentioned the word "evolution." But they also mentioned the words "intelligent design" for the first time, albeit in a parenthetical phrase stating that the requirement that students "critically analyze" evolutionary theory does not mandate the teaching or testing of intelligent design.
"In saying it does not mandate the teaching or testing of intelligent design, it kind of throws intelligent design in everybody's face," said board member Stephen Millett from Columbus.
Last month, the board voted 9-8 to keep the language.
The motion to remove the language was made by Martha Wise, an elected board member from Avon whose district includes Toledo. She was joined from northwest Ohio by Lou Ann Harold of Ada.
But board chairman, Sue Westendorf of Bowling Green, opposed the motion. At-large member Emerson J. Ross, Jr., of Toledo, who supported the curriculum in February, left the meeting before the vote was taken because of an apparent timing conflict.
"Most people want students to learn the evidence critical of Darwinism, as well as the evidence that supports it, rather than just teaching Darwin's theory as if it were sacred dogma," aid John G. West, associate director of the Discovery Institute, a conservative, Seattle-based think tank that supported the lesson plan.
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