By a vote of 4-1 the Spencer (Iowa) Community School Board of Education agreed "to discontinue the pursuit of a Religious Liberty Policy" (see http://www.spenceriowaschools.com/pdfs/minutes/ minutes_141.pdf; and http://www.spencerdailyreporter.com/story/1582790.html).
This is as official as it gets, at least for the foreseeable future, in the effort to defeat an attempt to introduce Intelligent Design and a sectarian Bible class earlier in that school district. And, this time, the Discovery Institute did not even put up a fight in Iowa.
One of the first hints that Intelligent Design was being discussed as part of a "religious liberty" policy came on July 3, 2009 when the local newspaper, The Spencer Daily Reporter, published its account of a meeting of the school board. The report stated: "With...the 'Darwin's Black Box' book by Michael Behe in hand, and a handful of community members' insights, Van Wyk and Schlichtemeier drafted the policy presented Tuesday night." See http://www.spencerdailyreporter.com/story/1552154.html
Barbara Van Wyk, an ordained Assemblies of God minister, and David Schlichtemeier, the school board president, were the school board members promoting this idea under the banner of a "religious liberty" policy. Such "religious liberty" policies have been marketed by the Discovery Institute as a means to introduce Intelligent Design into classrooms, especially after the momentous legal defeat of Intelligent Design at Dover in 2005.
Earlier this year, Rod Roberts, an Iowa state legislator, also tried to introduce a religious liberty policy in Iowa, but it never moved forward at all, especially after state-wide vocal protests from Iowa scientists and educators. Yet, Iowa does not have a single state-wide school board, but rather numerous local ones. So, the first problem is how to express concerns to a school board that might see those outside of their district as, well, "outsiders."
It turned out that school board members were surprised by the intensity of complaints registered in, among other places, The Des Moines Register. On July 8, I contacted Rekha Basu, the popular Des Moines Register columnist, who has been a supporter of science education in the past. She wrote a critical column on the Spencer School board policy on July 13.
By August, the second draft of the policy had omitted references to intelligent design or challenging "Darwinism." However, the ID issue was not dead yet, and it could be revived, especially with school board elections coming on September 8.
In the meantime, I helped to assemble a small coalition, consisting of Dr. Warren Blumenfeld, a professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Iowa State University, Bob Ready, the president of the Iowa Secularists, and Connie Terrell, Executive Director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa.
Connie Terrell was able to persuade the school Superintendent, Greg Ebeling to meet with us. On September 29, Terrell, Blumenfeld and I held a very cordial meeting in Spencer with Mr. Ebeling and Todd Korbitz, the new president of the school board. We expressed our concerns and the problems with religious liberty policies and Intelligent Design.By then, some luck and voters had intervened. Barbara Van Wyk did not run for re-election, and David Schlichtemeier, was voted out.
The Des Moines Register (October 31, 2009; quote in the print version only), "He [Schlichtemeier] said the religious liberties policy was a factor."
In any case, the meeting on September 29 with Ebeling and Korbitz was quite friendly, and they seemed grateful for our input. In particular, I expressed my concern that their definition of "religion" was too broad, and could even include science. They seemed sincere in trying to teach good science to their students.
The defeat of this "religious liberty" policy does harbor potential lessons for others trying to fight these anti-science actions in local school districts. First, college faculty members should not underestimate the power of their opinions on these issues even in school districts where these faculty members do not live.
Yes, some school board members might resent outsiders, but others welcome expertise and attention from respected institutions. This is especially the case if advice is given with courtesy and tact. The school board must be convinced that the aim is to further good science education rather than to impose some ideological hegemony on a small school district. One should try to contact school board members, and see how open they are to outside advice before dismissing any interaction as a lost cause.
Good coordinated actions by coalitions are extremely important. Although I am an incompatibilist in terms of religion and science (i.e., I donít think that religion and science are philosophically compatible), the fact remains that many religious people do support evolution, science education, and the separation of religion and government. When a common goal is to keep creationism out of schools, and good science education in schools, then the practical thing to do is to work together with interfaith alliances.
Finally, vigilance and rapid action are always important. This means having shoes on the ground -- a ready group of educators, scientists, and other allies ready to write letters, draft petitions, and even travel (in our case, about 3-4 hours) in person to places where we could make a difference.
The best news is that the Discovery Institute did not even put up a fight at all in Spencer, Iowa. Perhaps they just did not want to suffer another humiliating defeat in Iowa, or perhaps they just didnít care.>If the Discovery Institute has given up on Iowa, then that is reason to celebrate. However, my past experience also tells me not to be complacent.