District officials will remind teachers in Brunswick schools of the legally required division between church and state in the classroom, after a complaint from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine about a fifth-grade teacher’s expression of a personal religious belief during a science class.

The ACLU’s letter, dated March 27, alleges that Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School teacher Lou Sullivan taught intelligent design to students during a lesson on the origins of the universe in January.

Brunswick Schools Superintendent Paul Perzanoski denied the charge and said that Sullivan, a 26-year veteran of the school, was simply responding to a question from a student, who asked Sullivan what his personal beliefs were.

“He said something to the effect that he believes in the Big Bang theory, but also believes that there may be a higher power,” Perzanoski said, paraphrasing Sullivan. “We told him he could not answer that particular question in that way again.”

ORIGIN OF THE CONTROVERSY

Sullivan did not respond to an emailed request for an interview.

The controversy began after a parent of a student in Sullivan’s class complained to the school about the lesson in which Sullivan reportedly discussed intelligent design with the kids, according to a letter provided by the ACLU.

The ACLU of Maine, in its letter, said Sullivan’s worksheet on astronomy included references to “some creation theories,” including “God made the universe,” an apparent violation of court decisions that have barred the teaching of creationism in public schools.

“The more we reviewed some of the material from the classroom, including an email that went home to the parents, we were concerned that the teacher was teaching intelligent design alongside scientific theories in a science classroom,” said Zach Heiden, legal director of the ACLU of Maine.

Intelligent design is the belief that the universe is the work of an intelligent force and not an undirected process such as natural selection.

The ACLU also has filed a Freedom of Access Act request with the Brunswick school department for curriculum documents, classroom materials, and policies and procedures for teaching students about the origin of the universe and evolution.

Sullivan wrote in a weekly email message to parents that “after discussing the Big Bang and Intelligent Design, I realized that my worksheet for the lesson was terribly inadequate,” according to the ACLU. The class helped him revise it, he wrote.

When a parent expressed concern, Sullivan wrote back.

“Basically, the ‘Intelligent Design’ discussion is something I include each year when I present my lesson on the Big Bang and other theories,” Sullivan wrote, according to the ACLU. “I began the discussion after years of speaking with families w(h)o have very different beliefs about how the universe was created. I try to allow all students to share what they believe about the creation of the universe.”

‘THOSE THINGS COME UP’

The ACLU declined to name the parent, or provide the full email exchanges with Sullivan, revealing only the excerpts that were quoted in its letter to Brunswick school officials.

Perzanoski said Sullivan’s emailed response to the parent was hastily written, and that it does not indicate Sullivan’s inclusion of intelligent design is an annual part of his lecture on the universe, only that it came up when a student asked a question once.

“As far as theories and beliefs, those things come up in discussions,” Perzanoski said. “Kids are allowed to express whatever they want. We can’t do that.”

Over the years, states and school districts across the country have tested the boundary between the First Amendment right against a state establishment of religion, and the desire by members of a community to teach students lessons about the world that reflect religious values.

The first major legal confrontation came with the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, when a Tennessee substitute teacher violated the state’s prohibition of teaching evolution in public schools.

Since then, the court has found that regulations requiring teachers to include religiously motivated items on curricula, alone or in parallel with scientific concepts, is constitutionally impermissible.

The latest of those cases, decided in 2005, came from a Pennsylvania school district’s policy that required biology teachers to present intelligent design alongside evolution, which was struck down by a federal judge.


Comments are not available on this story.