September 14, 2013

Think tank crusades for intelligent design

The Discovery Institute takes its push against the teaching of evolution to Ball State University.

By SETH SLABAUGH The Star Press

MUNCIE, Ind. - Did Ball State University President Jo Ann Gora open a legal can of worms when she took a strong stand this summer against the teaching of intelligent design in the classroom?

AP A NY USA Museum Evolution
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A woman walks past an evolution display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The Discovery Institute, which advocates the teaching of intelligent design and creationism, has focused its latest efforts on Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

The Associated Press

The Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank that believes supernatural forces shaped the universe, believes so.

"This dispute is not over by a long shot," John West, vice president of the institute, told The Star Press on Aug. 1. "If the president thought that she was ending the controversy, I think she will think otherwise in coming weeks."

The Discovery Institute was established to push against the teaching of evolution in the nation's schools.

On Tuesday, West and an attorney at the institute sent Gora a letter demanding that she investigate associate professor of English Paul Ranieri's Honors 390 seminar "Dangerous Ideas," which allegedly uses "What Is Your Dangerous Idea?" as its sole textbook.

"This completely one-sided book appears to be one long argument for atheism," West wrote in the 10-page letter. "Indeed, its contributors declare that 'Science Must Destroy Religion,' that 'There is no God, no Intelligent Designer; no higher purpose to our lives,' and even that science should assume the role currently played by religion and that scientists should function as our 'high priests.'"

Other excerpts:

"Living creatures capable of reflecting on their own existence are a freak accident, existing for one brief moment in the history of the universe."

"... beliefs in angels, deities and eternal souls can be understood in part as wish-fulfilling metaphors for an unpleasant reality that most of us cannot fully comprehend and accept."

"Beyond Earth, there is no intelligence ... that is watching out for us or cares. We are alone."

The institute contends the course violates Gora's new policy "forbidding its faculty from favoring or endorsing one side of a religious debate over another."

On July 31, Gora said intelligent design and creationism "can have their place at Ball State in humanities or social science courses. However, even in such contexts, faculty must avoid endorsing one point of view over others."

Gora earlier this year received a complaint against Eric Hedin, an assistant professor of physics, who was accused by the Freedom From Religion Foundation of indoctrinating science students in an honors seminar with a conservative, faith-based agenda promoting intelligent design.

In that case, Gora said in her July 31 ruling that intelligent design is "not appropriate content for science courses" because it is overwhelmingly deemed by the scientific community as a religious belief, not a scientific theory.

Hedin remained a member of the physics and astronomy department.

"Although we believe that Professor Ramieri's apparent teaching of a one-sided course on religion should be allowed as part of academic freedom, BSU must now do unto its other professors as it has done unto Dr. Hedin, for the sake of self-consistency and legal compliance," West wrote.

Joan Todd, Gora's spokeswoman, told The Star Press that Ball State has received the institute's complaint letter and is reviewing it. She declined to comment further.

The letter also asks Gora to investigate the qualifications of three faculty members to teach certain honors seminars, since Hedin's qualifications to teach were also called into question.

Assistant professor of English Brent Blackwell, who teaches a course "which ... is supposed to be a science course yet Professor Blackwell appears to have no academic or professional training in the sciences."

Associate professor of biology C. Ann Blakey, whose course "teaches politics, law, economics and other non-scientific content."

Assistant professor of biology James Olesen, whose seminar "deals with the moral and ethical aspects of such issues as euthanasia, yet his website shows no evidence of any academic training ... in philosophy, ethics, religion or related areas."

None of the four faculty members identified in the letter responded to voice or email messages left by The Star Press.

Among other legal challenges, the letter claims that Gora's policy on intelligent design violate Ball State's Faculty and Professional Personnel Handbook, which states, "Academic freedom and freedom of expression include but are not limited to the expression of ideas, philosophies or religious beliefs, however controversial, in a classroom or other academic setting."

Teaching intelligent design as a scientific theory "is not a matter of academic freedom -- it is an issue of academic integrity," Gora said in July. "... to allow intelligent design to be presented to science students as a valid scientific theory would violate the academic integrity of the course as it would fail to accurately represent the consensus of science scholars."

She also said it's a First Amendment issue.

"As a public university, we have a constitutional obligation to maintain a clear separation between church and state," Gora said. The institute maintains that Gora is not applying her faculty speech code equally to all faculty and courses.

If Gora doesn't respond to the institute's numerous legal concerns, including the procedures she followed in the Hedin case, by Sept. 30, "we will assume that you do not intend to answer our questions, or otherwise cooperate with our reasonable requests, and that we must therefore seek remedy elsewhere," the institute concluded in its letter.

 

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