The debate underway in Calaveras County over whether a student has the right to express religious beliefs in science class has been discussed and litigated for decades.
Many court decisions have come down firmly on the side of science.
“The state Board of Education clearly states what the policies are and (Bret Harte) school board is clearly honoring those policies. If we addressed genesis in science class as literally interpretive it would violate the U.S. Constitution. Science class is for science,” said Gary Hurd, who taught science and medicine in a 45-year career.
Hurd, who lives in Dana Point, Orange County, said he read an online report about the issue from The Union Democrat earlier this week. He reached out to the newspaper to share his perspective.
On Monday, Grayson Mobley, a 16-year-old sophomore at Bret Harte High, asked the school board to change its policy that prohibits discussion of religion in science classes. His lawyer, Greg Glaser, has said the family will sue if the board does not allow freedom of expression in class.
Grayson and Glaser say the issue is one of freedom of speech.
“Grayson’s case is about allowing a student to scientifically, constructively, politely, and relevantly express philosophical and religious knowledge when it is directly relevant to the subject matter already being discussed in class,” Glaser said.
The National Center for Science Education, billed as a nonprofit organization with the purpose of defending science education from ideological interference, lists 10 major cases that have dealt with evolution and creationism. Summaries from the NCSE of these cases include:
• In Epperson v. Arkansas in 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a state law that prohibited the teaching of evolution, finding it unconstitutional on grounds that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not permit a state to require that teaching and learning have to be tailored to any religious sect or doctrine.
• In Segraves v. State of California in 1981, a state court found the California State Board of Education’s science framework, including its anti-dogmatism policy, allowed room for Segraves’ views, contrary to his claim that discussion of evolution in class interfered with his and his children’s free exercise of religion. The court also directed the Board of Education to circulate the policy, which in 1989 was broadened to cover all areas of science, not just evolution.
• In Peloza v. Capistrano School District in 1994, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal district court conclusion that a teacher’s First Amendment right to free exercise of religion was not breached by a school district’s policy that evolution be taught in biology classes. The court rejected the plaintiff’s definition of a “religion” of “evolutionism” and found the district had rightly required a science teacher to teach scientific theory in biology class.
The National Center for Science Education’s mission is to help teachers, parents, scientists and others at local, state and national levels to make sure instructors can teach subjects like evolution and climate change “accurately, honestly and confidently.”
Grayson Mobley is described as a straight-A student who attended grades one through eight at Christian Family Learning Center in Angels Camp before enrolling in Bret Harte High.
Grayson’s father, Troy Mobley, said Grayson walked into science class at the start of the school year and his teacher announced that any notion of God or creation needs to be left outside the classroom.
“That was the ground rules at the beginning of the year,” Troy Mobley said. “Grayson is not trying to argue about it. He never brought it up. He’s being told right from the get-go don’t even bring it up. He feels like his freedom of speech right is being taken away.”
The Mobleys live in Mountain Ranch. They attend Mountain Ranch Community Church and Church of the Nazarene in Sutter Creek.
“Creationism is that God created the heavens and earth, and that’s what he was taught and that’s what we believe,” Troy Mobley said earlier this week.
Troy Mobley is a commercial airline pilot and his wife, Lisa, is a homemaker. She also volunteers for Christian Family Learning Center. Grayson is their only child.
Hurd, who has worked as a seventh-grade science teacher and taught medicine at the University of California, Irvine, the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta and worked as a nuclear chemist at UC Irvine, said Mobley certainly has the right to protest the board’s policies.
“And the school board has the right to inform them that they are wrong,” Hurd said.
Glenn Branch, deputy director for the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, said the Bret Harte district policy is consistent with advice from both the California School Boards Association and the California Department of Education, and it has never been successfully challenged in court.
“What’s taught about evolution in California’s public schools is supported by overwhelming amounts of evidence from multiple areas of science,” Branch said in a phone interview.
“Grayson Mobley is of course entitled to believe otherwise, but the district has no responsibility to give him a platform from which to announce his belief, while it has a responsibility to teach evolution properly.”
The Bret Harte policy is intended to enable teachers to do just that by freeing them from the need to address philosophical or religious objections in a subject that is scientifically uncontroversial, Branch said.
John Howard Kramer, a former trustee of the Vallecito Union School District and a member of the National Center for Science Education, said people have tried introducing creationism, intelligent design or other faith-based pseudo-science into science curricula for years and they’ve been denied numerous times by courts.
“To me,” Kramer said., “reframing the issue as one of free speech is like regurgitated fake news.”
Attorney for student responds
Copperopolis attorney Glaser said the NCSE’s points are directly at odds with conclusions reached by the U.S. Supreme Court in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which he says set the definitive standard in this area.
He said the court ruled public school officials may not suppress student speech they believe would interfere with schoolwork or discipline.
As the court in Tinker observed, students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” Glaser said, quoting the court decision.
That is why the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations jointly approved a statement that says in part, “Just as they may neither advance nor inhibit any religious doctrine, teachers should not ridicule, for example, a student’s religious explanation for life on earth.”
Glaser said he is not confident the NCSE understands Grayson’s case is not about preaching religion or philosophy in science class.
“Grayson’s case is about allowing a student to scientifically, constructively, politely and relevantly express philosophical and religious knowledge when it is directly relevant to the subject matter already being discussed in class,” Glaser said.
The First Amendment allows for such a discussion because it encourages an academic environment of critical thinking, Glaser said. The First Amendment does not tell anyone what to think, but empowers us all to express our viewpoints.
“By contrast, the NCSE is promoting an extremist position that attempts to censor scientific viewpoints that dare to challenge their current narrative on science,” Glaser said.
Branch with NCSE said Glaser is mistaken if he thinks that the Supreme Court’s decision in Tinker v. Des Moines recognized a free speech right for students to air whatever views they please in the classroom.
“While the court decided that wearing a black armband to school to protest the war in Vietnam was protected speech, it clearly distinguished such symbolic action from speech that ‘would substantially interfere with the work of the school,’” Branch said.
Later decisions have observed the same distinction. In a 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, Branch said, the Supreme Court held, “A school need not tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its basic educational mission.”
“While I am not a lawyer, I feel confident that the board’s counsel will conclude that the district’s policy is constitutional,” Branch said. “And, after all, isn’t it obviously a reasonable policy to reserve the science classroom for discussions of science?”
Current policy at Bret Harte High
The current policy for the Bret Harte Union High School District states: “Philosophical and religious theories are based, at least in part, on faith, and are not subject to scientific test and refutation. Such beliefs shall not be discussed in science classes, but may be addressed in the social science and language arts curricula.”
The district superintendent says the policy comes from the California School Boards Association, also known as CSBA. The CSBA policy is identical to the state Board of Education policy on the teaching of natural sciences, which was adopted in 1989 and is more than 600 words.
Other key sections say in part:
• Science teachers are professionally bound to limit their teaching to science and should resist pressure to do otherwise. Administrators should support teachers in this regard.
• If a student raises a question in a natural science class that the teacher determines is not in the domain of science, the teacher should treat the question with respect. The teacher should urge the student to discuss the question further with his or her family and clergy.
• Constitutions of California and the U.S. do not require class time be given to religious views for people who object to material presented or activities conducted in science classes. It may be unconstitutional to grant time for that reason.
The policy also states, “However, the United States Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion, and local governing boards and school districts are encouraged to develop statements, such as this one on policy, that recognize and respect that freedom in the teaching of science.”
At the end of Glaser’s presentation at Monday night’s board meeting, Joan Lark, district board president, told Glaser, “We will discuss the legality of this policy with our legal counsel after this meeting.”
The Bret Harte Union High School District superintendent, Michael Chimente, says that although Glaser contends the district’s policy violates his client’s First Amendment rights, the district has no reason to believe CSBA’s policies do not comply with the current state of the law.