The Texas State Board of Education voted 11-4 to approve a series of biology textbooks in early November, rejecting arguments by Religious Right groups that the books were not suitable for use in state schools because of their favorable treatment of evolution.
The board action means that the books, estimated to cost at least $30 million, will be available for use in Texas schools by the 2004-05 school year. Religious Right activists on the board argued unsuccessfully that the texts should be voted on one at a time, but the proposal was overturned, and all of the books were approved at the same time.
Board members have been debating the issue for months and held a series of open hearings for public comment. One meeting lasted several hours as proponents and opponents of the books lined up to offer comments.
Fundamentalist clergy and Religious Right groups blasted the books, but moderate religious leaders and members of the higher education and scientific communities in the state banded together to defend them. (Americans United activists were among those offering input.)
An out-of-state organization, the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, also applied significant pressure. The Institute promotes a revamped version of creationism called "intelligent design" that asserts that life on earth is so complex it must have been designed by a higher power. Some Institute supporters have argued that evolution must be undermined because it blocks people from accepting the claims of fundamentalist Christianity.
Institute allies argued that the Texas books contained factual errors, but evolutionary biologists disputed that contention. Steven Schafersman, a former biology professor who led a pro-evolution group called Texas Citizens for Science, reviewed the texts and said their treatment of evolution ranged from adequate to excellent. (See "Devious Design," November 2003 Church & State.)
The Texas board has limited power to rule on textbooks. Under state law, the board may reject a book only if it contains factual errors, fails to conform to the state curriculum or is poorly bound.
Public school advocates and church-state separationists were pleased with the outcome.
"Rejecting one or more of the books...would have sent a dangerous message that the education of millions of Texas children is less important than the personal beliefs of a few," said Samantha Smoot, president of Texas Freedom Network.
The Los Angeles Times reported that after the vote, David Gagenda, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Texas, read a statement stressing the importance of good science education in an increasingly high-tech society.
"At a time when our nation's welfare increasingly depends on technology, it has never been more important for students to understand the basic ideas of modern science," read the statement. "Evolution is not a belief, a hunch or an untested hypothesis. It has been extensively tested and repeatedly verified."
Moderate religious leaders also spoke out. Before the vote, board members received a letter signed by hundreds of Texas clergy telling members that they oppose "attempts to dilute, distort or censor the teaching of evolution."
Religious Right agents were infuriated with the derailment of their agenda. After repeatedly trying to block the books, members of the board's ultra-conservative bloc were angered when Board Chair Geraldine Miller cut off debate and called for a vote.
"So much for representative democracy," muttered David Bradley, a textbook opponent. Bradley later told The Times, "There are weaknesses in evolutionary theory. That's what this is about."
The vote could have repercussions in other states. Because Texas is such a large state that purchases so many texts, publishers often tailor tomes to meet Texas' demands. Those books often end up in other states.