Two Springboro school board members are one vote short of having the support on the five-member board to push for “creationism” in classrooms there, which would likely ignite a wider debate on teaching religion in public schools and maybe set up a court fight.
The Ohio Department of Education sets curriculum standards and guidelines, but leaves many decisions about instruction up to local school boards. Courts have been clear on the issue of religion in public schools for decades.
“There is a segment of the population where those ideas are popular,” said Mike Brickner, spokesman for the Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The courts have held every time, you can’t teach creationism in school.”
Kelly Kohls, who was elected in Springboro on a platform of fiscal responsibility two years ago, requested last week the district’s curriculum director look into ways of providing “supplemental” instruction dealing with creationism. Fellow member, Scott Anderson, who was elected with Kohls when the district was struggling financially, supports his colleague’s idea.
“Creationism is a significant part of the history of this country,” Kohls said. “It is an absolutely valid theory and to omit it means we are omitting part of the history of this country.”
The current standoff in Congress over the debt ceiling has elevated the profile of the Tea Party, which emphasizes fiscal conservatism, smaller government and free markets. But socially conservative issues, such as limiting abortion and gun control and pushing for religion in public schools, are also being advocated by those with strong Tea Party credentials.
Kohls is the head of the Warren County Tea Party. Although she said her desire to teach creationism is not directly related to the emerging political movement, it’s not inconsistent with Tea Party ideals.
“My input on creationism has everything with me being a parent and not a member of the Tea Party,” she said. “We are motivated people who want to change the course of this country. Eliminating God from our public lives I think is a mistake and is why we have gone in the direction of spending beyond our means.”
Fellow Tea Party supporters, such as the author of Senate Bill 5, state Sen. Shannon Jones of Clearcreek Twp.; Gov. John Kasich and GOP presidential contender Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota have supported other controversial and socially conservative legislation. Earlier this month Kasich signed into law a bill banning abortions when a doctor determines a fetus can live outside the womb, part of a flurry of anti-abortion bills introduced this year.
Rob Nichols, Kasich’s aide, said the governor’s support of the abortion bill and legislation allowing guns in bars have not changed his focus on improving the state’s economy. “Our attention remains completely fixed,” Nichols said. “The governor is pro-life and he supports the Second Amendment, so he was happy to sign those bills.”
Steven DeLue, interim chair of Miami University’s political science department, said “right-of-center” policies, such as the effort to teach creationism, may be popular in ultra-conservative places like Warren County, but he warned they could turn off some independent voters who otherwise support the Tea Party because of its fiscal agenda.
“The problem for them and for the Republican Party is polls are showing the American people, in general, do not support these positions,” DeLue said. “Whatever allure the Tea Party had to some independents, they are going to lose now with the debt crisis and these other conservative positions.”
Whether creationism can be taught in public schools is a debate that never really goes away; the Texas state school board recently debated the issue while approving new textbooks.
John Silvius, a former biology professor at Cedarville University, a Christian institution that teaches both evolution and creationism, said the two theories can co-exist, even in a public school classroom.
“The joy of science, for me, is to raise questions that don’t necessarily have easy answers,” Silvius said. “If scientific inquiry is robust enough that it can reject false theories, why be so concerned?”
In Springboro, Kohls believes the Tea Party will play a growing role in coming elections, even at the school board level. “The majority of this county is looking for fiscal conservatives, and they will likely be social conservatives as well.”
Anderson said he is not necessarily trumpeting the teaching of creationism, but “if it came up, I would support it. I’m a Christian. I believe God created us. I’d like to see God back in school.”
Anderson and Kohls also have the backing of Jo Ellen Myers, who like Kohls, is a member of Educate Ohio, a statewide group of conservative board members focused on school finance issues. Myers sits on the South-Western City school board in Grove City, south of Columbus and believes creation should be taught along side evolution.
“If they’re teaching the one, why not?” she said. “I just haven’t brought it up.”
Myers said she believes in creationism, rather than evolution because evolution is “based on a theory that can’t even been proven.”
New state school board President Debe Terhar, a Tea Party supporter backed by Gov. Kasich, said she was unaware of Kohl’s request concerning creationism.
“I absolutely have no position at this point,” said Terhar, who lives in Green Twp. in Hamilton County. “I’m not going to go there.”
But Jeffrey Mims, a former Dayton Public Schools board member now on the state board, believes the issue will come up again at the state level given the political climate. Mims opposes the idea and believes debating it is a waste of time and money.
“Unfortunately, I think it will come to us at some point and time,” he said. “You have people who have to justify to their supporters that they carried their water. I see this as a major distraction from the significant challenges we have in Ohio.”
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