Friday, June 6, 2008

What to do About Creationism Course in Long Island, New York

In the February 2008 issue of the INQUIRER, we reported on the Creationism course being offered in the Northport-East Northport Union Free School District’s adult education program.  (Go to http://www.centerforinquiry.net/uploads/attachments/feb2008newsletter.pdf).

This course was a blatantly un-scientific course in religious instruction being offered at a public school, partly funded, according to information provided by the district, by tax dollars.

CFI Community of Long Island, as per a request by a parent in the district, beginning in October 2007, wrote a number of letters to the district (copying the media) regarding the course offering.  We requested information on the process of offering courses at the school.

The letters and complaints went unanswered for a long time until a letter from the school district’s attorneys was received by CFI Community of LI in early March 2008.  The response consisted of a cover letter from the law firm of Ingerman Smith L.L.P. by Warren H. Richmond, dated February 27, 2008, and an opinion letter that was issued by the law firm on March 14, 2007, a year earlier!  The opinion was issued after the initial offering of the course to the public in fall of 2006.

Here are some excerpts from the legal opinion issued on 3/14/07 from the law firm to Ms. Arlene Munson, President of the Board of Education of this school district:

I am writing in response to the Board’s request for a written opinion regarding various issues related to courses offered in the District’s Continuing Education Program.  These issues have come to the fore as a result of the objection of a member of the community, Dr. Frederic Lipfert, to a course entitled “What is Creation Science” which was offered in the fall of 2006.

Specifically, two concerns were raised by Dr. Lipfert.  First, that the offering of this course as a part of the District’s Continuing Education Program constitutes religious advocacy in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.  Second, that the description contained in the Continuing Education brochure had the effect of suggesting that the District supported the proposition that there is no scientific basis for the theory of evolution…

Freedom of Expression

Identifying the forum

As noted by the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd District in Bronx, Household of Faith vs. Board of Education of the City of NY, 331 F.3d 342 (2nd Cir. 2003), the right to exercise free speech on government property depends on the type of forum where the speechoccurs.  The US Supreme Court has identified the categories of fora: (1) the traditional public forum; (2) the non-public forum (3) the designated public forum, which includes a subcategory known as the “limited public forum…”

Restrictions governing access to a limited public forum, including content-based restraints, are permitted as long as two criteria are met: (1) they are reasonable in light of the purpose served by the forum; and (2) they are viewpoint neutral…

Restrictions must be reasonable

In considering what is reasonable, courts will focus on whether a limitation is consistent with preserving the property for the purpose to which it is dedicated…

The court noted that in its previous decision of Planned Parenthood v. Clark County School District, 941 F.2d 817 (9th Cir. 1991) (en banc):

We recognized that a public secondary school has legitimate concerns “such as respecting audience maturity, disassociating itself from speech inconsistent with its educational mission, and avoiding the appearance of endorsing views” that render a school’s restriction on advertising reasonable.

Restrictions must be viewpoint neutral

Even if a governmental entity’s restriction of access to a limited public forum is reasonable, it will not pass constitution muster unless it meets a second requirement – that of being viewpoint neutral.  Viewpoint discrimination occurs when a government discriminates against particular views taken by speakers on a subject that is generally allowed, rather than excluding the subject altogether as a topic for discussion.  Thus, in viewpoint discrimination, a governmental entity impermissibly regulates speech on the basis of the speaker’s ideology or opinion or perspective.  Permissible content discrimination, on the other hand, excludes an entire category of speech.

The Establishment Clause

In applying these principles to the Creation Science offering, it becomes apparent that rejection of the course would run afoul of the First Amendment.  This is so for several reasons.  First, the District has never, by policy or practice, placed any limitation on the subject matter to be offered in adult education courses.  Indeed, the administration is not aware of any other instance in which a course has been rejected, nor has there ever been any attempt to review or monitor the adult education curriculum.  In this light, rejection of the Creation Science course because of the religious or scientific view presented would clearly be deemed unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.  Second, unlike the course offered as part of the school curriculum, this course is presented to adults, outside the regular school day and only to those who elect to take it.  As such, the coercive effect of presenting religious materials to a captive audience of students, which various courts have found objectionable, is plainly absent.  Finally, any claim of unconstitutional endorsement of religion by the district is removed by the disclaimer which appears in the Adult Education brochure to the effect that the views presented in the classes are those of the individual instructor and should not be interpreted as endorsed by the School District.

Dr. Lipfert’s second point, i.e. that the brochure’s description of the Creation Science course might be interpreted by some as indicating the District’s support for the proposition that there is no scientific basis for the theory of evolution is not without merit.  The course description could have more clearly indicated that this was the view of the instructor.  There is no legal impediment to the District reviewing and where appropriate editing course description, to this end, and it is recommended that it do so…

As an intermediate step, the Board could limit the content areas to be offered in the Adult Education Program, precluding course in certain areas such as religion, politics or other areas as it may deem appropriate, provided that it does not preclude courses based on viewpoint… The Creation Science course provides an excellent example in that a question exists as to whether this course can suitably be categorized as a course in religion…

In view of the above, the Board must address the threshold question of whether it wishes to continue the Adult Education Program in the same manner as in the past or whether it wishes to modify it so as to restrict the content or subject matter of the courses offered…

Very truly yours, Warren H. Richmond.

Some more background:

The Continuing Education brochure offered by the district does have disclaimers in it, such as “none of the views presented in the classes should be interpreted as endorsed by the district.”

But the information sent along with the legal opinion also notes that “The Community Services Program’s activities shall be supported by a combination of registration and material’s fees, local taxation, and/or Federal Aid as is currently available for that purpose…”

There’s more!

In researching the story, a letter dated April 6, 2008, to the editor of the Times of Northport was discovered who was responding to Dr. Stephen Uzzo, the Northport resident who first alerted CFI Community of Long Island.  Here is an excerpt:

“In response to Mr. Uzzo's September 27 letter condemning Creationism as an adult continuing education elective course offering, I find it fascinating that a certified teacher would espouse censorship instead of debate.

I do not know if Creationism is a pseudoscience or not but, far from being the scientific certainty that Mr. Uzzo represents, there are serious and unexplained gaps in evolutionary theory (which is why it is called "theory"), including an almost total lack of fossil records on "transitional" evolutionary life forms.

There is a dynamic and rigorous debate regarding on the one hand a theory that remains, to a large extent, unproven, and on the other a theory that is essentially unprovable. Mr. Uzzo's intent appears to be to stifle this debate, rather than, as a good and experienced educator, offer rebuttal.

In the larger context, Mr. Uzzo's letter provides an important example of a phenomenon that appears to be spreading in the world of higher education — intolerance for free speech...

Perhaps Mr. Uzzo's intentions are benign but I don't think we as a community or society need protection from ideas.  The antidote for ignorance is exactly what Mr. Uzzo opposes — freedom of speech.  Greg Munson, October 03, 2007.  (The writer is married to local Board of Education President Arlene Munson.)”  (Go to http://www.timesofnorthport.com/Letters-3551.112114_Antidote_for_ignorance.html.)

One could probably assume that Mr. Munson wrote the above letter with the approval of the B. of E. President who happens to be his wife!

So, in a nutshell, the Northport-East Northport School District has decided that they will have no standards regarding what will be offered to the public in their Adult Educational program!  ANYTHING GOES!

In addition, it seems clear that at least the husband of the President of the Board of Education seems to think that issues such as “Creationism vs. Evolution,” or “Global Warming,” or “gender-based” biological distinctions are simply “free speech” matters not subject to scientific inquiry; and other (I’m sure coincidentally) right wing hot button issues such as “affirmative action” and “illegal immigration” are similarly only tangentially amenable to scientific inquiry.  In fact, it would seem that scientific inquiry is just another form of mere opinion, on an equal footing with religious or political dogma; is this reading a bit too much into the above letter?  It would seem that Public Schools do not stand for anything, and especially not science and reason and, as a consequence, quality education.

What will happen when the School District is confronted with a course on “Does Science Give Evidence Against the Existence of God?” which actually is a totally legitimate area of inquiry?

How about a course on “Does Southern Baptism Have Racist Origins?” again, a totally legitimate area of inquiry?

What would happen if the school district is confronted with an obviously odious course such as “Why the Holocaust Never Happened.”

What would happen if the Creationism Course is expanded into an explanation of the nature of the human races as explained by Dr. Henry Morris who wrote the textbook actually used in the Creationism course?  Would a course entitled “Why Africans are Destined to be the Servants of Humanity” be an acceptable course offering?

How about a course in “2 + 2 = 5”?

The School Board is probably simply praying that no one offers such courses.  (And of course, nothing fails like prayer.)

The Northport-East Northport School District should make a principled stand for quality education and prevent their schools and taxes from being used to promote harmful superstition and other non-scientific dogma.  They should decide that unscientific dogma is “inconsistent with its educational mission” and that the school will not allow religious or secular political dogma or superstition of any kind in the classrooms.  The key words are “dogma” and “superstition” which imply beliefs that are by definition un-testable and beyond debate.  What Free Speech issue is at stake when the course is state-funded religious instruction?  Isn’t this actually an establishment of a particular religion?

If taxpayer dollars are behind a course in any amount, religious or political dogma does not belong in its offerings; keep in mind that Federal Courts have found ID to be a religious belief.  Let those persons who want to preach dogma rent the space outright if they want to offer a course, and remove them from the district produced brochures.

This is all unlikely to occur. And indeed, there is a measure of sympathy with the plight of, we’re sure, many of the members of the Board of Education who are probably extremely uncomfortable with offering courses based on superstition in their school building and funded in part with tax dollars; at the same time they have concern about lawsuits from the religious fundamentalists that would be sure to follow a banning of religious courses disguised as science.

There is no time like the present to take a stand for quality education; the School Board is urged to create guidelines that separate course offerings that are evidence-based versus those based on the supernatural or the unquestioned assumptions of their promoters.  What a concept: Schools that proudly offer knowledge, reason, evidence, understanding and real free inquiry!

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