A few weeks before the March 4 Republican primary, a group of candidates gathered at the Shady Valley Golf Club in Arlington for a meet-and-greet luncheon with voters. For the most part, the candidates were seasoned pros who all seemed to know each other, but one stood out from the rest.
His name was Barney Maddox, and he looked lost. He wore an ill-fitting gray suit, his Coke-bottle glasses kept slipping down his nose, and he looked as if he cut his own hair. While the other candidates worked the room, Maddox wandered around, looking for a hand to shake. Eventually, he ended up at a table overlooking the golf course, where he sat alone, waiting for the event to begin.
Not much was known about Maddox, because he did not grant interviews to the press. He had, however, been identified as perhaps the most dangerous man on the ballot by the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog group in Austin that keeps tabs on the religious right.
The reasons for this were clear. Maddox was a young-Earth creationist, a Bible-literalist who believed the Earth was just 6,000 years old. He had written part of the curriculum for the Institute of Creation Research, a Dallas-based school that offers courses in creation science, and he had lectured at the Creation Evidence Museum in Glen Rose, which claims to have fossil evidence that dinosaurs and man walked together. He had once called evolution "the most irrational belief ever held by man." Now he wanted a seat on Texas' State Board of Education.
His opponent, Pat Hardy, sat across the room. Fair-skinned and tall, with short red hair, she carried herself with the cheerful demeanor of a former school teacher, which she had been for 30 years. Social studies had been her subject, and truth be told, she missed the classroom. For the last six years she had served on the State Board of Education and was running for re-election. Hardy believed God had created the Earth, but she wasn't sure this belonged in the classroom. It was no secret this had made her the target of the religious right.
When their turns came to speak, Hardy went first, pointing out that she had 36 years in education and that as a member of the state board she had lead an effort to require that all high school students take four years of science before graduation. She considered this her proudest accomplishment on the board.
When she finished, Maddox stepped to the microphone. He said nothing of his experience in education, because he had none. Nor did he have any experience in politics. What he had to offer were true conservative credentials, he said, and if elected he would have something to say about the teaching of evolution, which he called "a pre-Civil War fairy tale." The candidates took a few questions from the audience, and when they were done, Maddox slipped out the door.
Over the next several weeks, Maddox ran a quiet campaign, avoiding events where the press might show up and ignoring their phone calls. While Hardy was relying on the mainstream press and the education establishment to get elected, Maddox was courting a different stripe of voters. He had the backing of the state home-school association, social conservative groups such as the Plano-based Free Market Foundation and people like former State Board of Education member Richard Neill, who, before serving as Maddox's campaign treasurer, had once endorsed a candidate who wanted to dismantle the public education system and replace it with private Christian schools.
Two weeks ago, while the rest of the state was watching the results of the Democratic presidential primary, Hardy quietly defeated Maddox. Had Maddox won, a movement more than 10 years in the making—a religious right takeover of the State Board of Education—would have been complete.
Already, the board is dominated by a far-right faction deeply concerned with promoting political and religious ideologies. In recent years, the board has rejected one textbook that taught about global warming—calling it "junk science" and "anti-capitalist"—and forced the publisher of another to replace a picture of a woman carrying a briefcase with a picture of a woman baking a cake. Board member Terri Leo has accused "liberal New York publishers" of inserting "stealth" homosexual messages into textbooks, and Republican David Bradley of Beaumont, the de facto leader of the far-right faction, once criticized an algebra book because it had pictures, recipes and references to Vietnam in it he considered inappropriate for the subject matter. Knowing that legally he could not reject a book on these grounds, he ripped the cover off. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said, tossing pieces of the cover to both sides of his chair, "worthless binding. I reject this book."
All of which is a prelude to the looming battle over the science curriculum, which is up for review in November. Seven of the 15 board members support the teaching of creationism or intelligent design. With Maddox, they would have had a clear majority.
But even without Maddox the fight for control of the state board is far from over. And the battle over the teaching of evolution is just getting started.
It is no surprise that this fight—which during the last 150 years has been waged in courtrooms across the country—would now come to Texas. From the beginning, Texas has played an important role in the creationist movement. The infamous creationist textbook, Of Pandas and People, was published by the Richardson-based Foundation for Thought and Ethics (which seeks to advance a biblical worldview in the classroom), and the first meetings of the intelligent design movement were held here. In fact, the strategy of the intelligent design movement, sometimes called "the wedge," was first outlined at a conference at Southern Methodist University in 1992.
In recent years the state has become a gathering place for the leading proponents of young-Earth creationism, which holds to a fundamentalist view of how the world was created. Last year, the Institute for Creation Research, which teaches that evolution is no more scientific than Biblical creationism, relocated from San Diego to Dallas because California would no longer offer accreditation for its degrees. Texas has proved a much more welcoming environment. In July, Governor Rick Perry appointed a devout young-Earth creationist named Don McLeroy to head the State Board of Education, and in November, the state's director of science education for public schools was forced to resign because she would not take a neutral position on the teaching of evolution.
Board members such as McLeroy share Maddox's fundamentalist view of the Earth's origins. McLeroy says he does not want to do away with the teaching of evolution (although he considers the theory "far-fetched") but he does think schools should "teach the controversy" surrounding the theory, although mainstream science holds that there isn't any more controversy about the theory of evolution than there is about the theory of gravity, and that remaining questions about evolution are simply opportunities for additional research.
The decision the state board makes on the science curriculum this November will determine what every public school student in Texas learns about science for the next 10 years. And that's not all. Because Texas buys more textbooks than every other state except California and publishers would rather not create separate editions for smaller states, the books ordered here will end up in classrooms across the country.
"If Texas falls, this is the beginning of a giant move backward in science education," says Chris Comer, the former science director who resigned in November. "What really disturbs me most of all is how the average citizen doesn't really care. The entire education system is about to be subverted, because this isn't just about science. This is about a group of people who are trying to dictate what should be taught in every subject, not according to research or facts, but according to their own whims and personal beliefs."
For both sides in this issue, the battle isn't just about education. For people like Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, it's about what kind of image Texas projects to the rest of the world and what kind of leaders we are producing for tomorrow.
"We can get them ready for the century they're living in, for the jobs that are being created right here in Texas, or we can give them a 19th-century education that puts them at a disadvantage to kids in every other state in this country and around the world."
The religious right frames the issue in a similar way. For them, teaching evolution is just a small part of a larger problem in society. The way they see it, America has become increasingly godless and materialistic. To hear them tell it, they are simply trying to return America to what it once was.
To understand the creationist movement, and the main arguments its adherents have against evolution, there is perhaps no better place to start than the Creation Evidence Museum in Glen Rose.
The museum sits on the banks of the Paluxy, a slow-moving river in Somervell County that winds through rolling hills, thickets of mesquite and juniper and low-rising limestone walls before pouring into the Brazos River. The museum, which occupies a peach-colored trailer, is run by Carl Baugh, who claims to have found fossil evidence in the river that man and dinosaurs walked together. A few weeks ago, I drove out to Glen Rose to pay Baugh a visit.
When I arrived, a Baptist church group was sitting in the museum's main room watching a video in which Baugh explained the creationist theory. In the video, Baugh wore a red Mr. Rogers-style cardigan and carried himself with the earnest swagger of a televangelist. He had soft, almond-colored eyes, a gray pompadour haircut and a voice that was at once soothing and commanding. In another life, he could have anchored an evening news program or served as a stand-in for Dick Clark on American Bandstand.
I paid my $2 and looked around the museum, which was crowded with slabs of fossilized dinosaur footprints, tropical-looking plants and a fish tank holding a balloon-sized piranha. My gaze stopped at a black-and-white picture behind the cash register of what appeared to be a giant man at some kind of carnival or fair. It looked like something out of Ripley's Believe It or Not.
"Who's that?" I asked the guy behind the counter, a doughy 30-something with rosy cheeks.
"That's Max Palmer. He was 8-foot-2," he said wistfully. "He was a resident of Glen Rose and personal friends with Dr. Baugh."
"What does he have to do with all this?" I asked, pointing at a fossil gathering dust on a shelf.
"It confirms the Genesis account that men grew to be giants. Genesis 6:4."
Baugh materialized from the back room, shook my hand and glanced at his gold watch. He had just finished giving a lecture, he said, and was about to start another, but he could give me a few minutes.
Baugh arrived at Glen Rose in 1982, and by that time the Paluxy was already hallowed ground for creationists. Dinosaur fossils were first discovered in the river in 1909, and the next year there were reports that "giant man tracks" had also been found in a limestone shelf of the river.
In 1961, this alleged discovery was featured prominently in a book called The Genesis Flood, which would become the seminal text of the creationist movement. The book, which was written by Old Testament scholar John Whitcomb and college professor Henry Morris, held that the traditional scientific understanding of the geologic column was incorrect. The geologic column, which contains different layers of sedimentary rock, had not been created over millions of years, as science held, but had instead been formed in one year, as a result of the global flood and its aftermath. Noah's flood explained everything from submarine canyons to frozen woolly mammoths found in the arctic. The implications of this theory—which would later form the basis of Morris' "creation science"—were enormous. If true, then everything scientists believed about evolution and the history of the world—in other words, everything based on scientific evidence and observation—was wrong.
Ever since publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, Bible literalists had been buffeted with one scientific discovery after another that seemed to fly in the face of their faith. Now with The Genesis Flood, there was a book that attempted to reconcile science with the Bible instead of other way around. Since The Genesis Flood's publication, a parallel universe has been created for those who believe in creationism. Today, there are schools that teach creation science, museums where that science comes to life in skeletal displays and Hollywood-style films, and organizations that push these views into the public realm of mainstream thought.
Over time, the claims the book made about the discovery of "man tracks" at Paluxy would be challenged, and eventually, Morris himself would distance himself from what he had once said was found at the river.
Baugh was in his late 40s when he came to Glen Rose, eager to find the smoking gun of creation science. As he began digging in the limestone bed of the river, he says, he uncovered several large three-toed footprints probably from sauropods, or as they are more commonly known, brontosaurs. But as he kept digging, he found what he was looking for—a winding path of footprints that looked like the tracks of a breed of giant men. These tracks were in the same sedimentary layer as the dinosaur tracks, meaning they had been created at the same time. "I was blown away," Baugh says. "To secular scientists, this would be like finding a Cadillac with a polished bumper in the very same layer with the dinosaurs."
While Baugh's work was celebrated by young-Earth creationists, the science community has not been as welcoming. Evolutionists and students from local universities show up at his museum so they can ask him about his degrees (which reportedly came from diploma mills) and laugh at his claims.
I asked Baugh why science was so threatened by his work.
"They are threatened, aren't they?" he asked with a smile, surprised, it seemed, that a reporter would ask such a friendly question. "I ask the question, 'What are you afraid of, aren't we looking for truth, good science?'
"They're threatened because, in my opinion, if you lay the two scientific theories, creation and evolution, side by side, innately the student chooses creation. It's obvious that he's too complicated, that living systems are too complicated to have arisen by chance."
This has been the main tenet of creationism from the beginning, and it has held great sway with the public. In fact, in the 1970s and '80s, several states, including Louisiana and Arkansas, passed laws that either banned the teaching of evolution or required that where evolution was taught, creationism must be taught with it. That ended in 1987 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Edwards v. Aguillard that teaching creationism in public schools violated the constitutional separation of church and state because it relied on biblical texts and "lacked a clear secular purpose."
In the aftermath of that decision, the Institute for Creation Research, which was founded by Morris in 1970, proposed a new strategy for creationists. The ICR suggested that "school boards and teachers should be strongly encouraged at least to stress the scientific arguments against evolution in their classes...even if they don't wish to recognize these as evidences and arguments for creationism."
Edwards v. Aguillard also gave birth to a new arm of the creationist movement. Not long after the decision, the Texas-based publishers of the creationist textbook Of Pandas and People, which had been at the heart of the case, changed references to "creation" to "intelligent design." The book also offered the first definition to appear in print of intelligent design, which asserts that life is too complex to have arisen by chance and therefore must have a creator.
Today, young-Earth creationism and intelligent design represent two distinct belief systems within the creationist movement. Intelligent design, which does not define who the creator is and does not rely on the Bible as its foundation, has attracted more than 100 scientists—molecular biologists, biochemists and physicists among them—from places such as Yale, Princeton and the University of Chicago. Young-Earth creationists are much larger in number, primarily because of the explosion of Christian fundamentalism across the country in the last 50 years. While members of both camps claim their movement is different from the other, even conservatives like Rush Limbaugh have said there is no difference. "While young-Earth creationists and proponents of intelligent design do not always agree, their goals are the same: to undermine the teaching of evolution and introduce some form of creationist teaching into the classroom," says Barbara Forrest, an expert on the movement.
Back at the museum, I asked Baugh if he thought creationism should be taught in public schools.
"Of course," he said. "It has more evidence than evolution does."
He called over a high school math teacher named John Heffner, who had been listening in. Heffner was getting ready to give a lecture on how math proved that evolution was impossible. He wore jeans and cowboy boots and the look of a man weary with where the world had gone.
"Let's face it, evolution is the only theory of science that needs laws on the books to protect it," he said. "I think it's time to uncensor science. The evidence for creation is so strong that it's really illogical to believe anything else." (Science begs to disagree. For responses to his arguments, see "Arguments Creationists Make Against Evolution".)
He quickly ran through his criticisms of evolutionary theory, which could have been cribbed from the notes of a Creationism 101 class. He began with peppered moths.
In England, during the Industrial Revolution, factories spewed so much black smoke into the air that soot covered everything, including the trees in the forest. As a result, moths began to grow darker. Those that did not—the white-colored peppered moth—were gobbled up by hungry birds, while the darker-colored moths blended in with the trees. It was natural selection at work, and seemingly irrefutable proof that evolution was real.
"Well, it was all fake," Heffner said. "They faked the results."
He continued with Haekel's Embryo, which supposedly showed that the human embryo goes through evolutionary stages—first it has gills like a fish, then a tail like a monkey—before it is fully developed.
Well, that was a fake too. Haekel had changed drawings of dog embryos to make them look similar to human embryos.
And that wasn't all. Lucy, the ape-like fossilized skeleton found in Africa in 1974—the supposed "missing link"—was more plaster of Paris than actual skeleton.
"And on and on it goes," he said. "I think it's time for scientists to stop trotting out these tired old icons, recycling them every year in the textbooks, and move into the 21st century. Modern science, with its understanding of DNA and the human genome, has shown that the sort of complex information sequencing that exists on the cellular level could not have arisen by chance."
These arguments, roundly refuted by science, are used by creationists of all stripes, whether they are men like Baugh, who are more steeped in Bible literacy than formal scientific training, or college professors at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which has become the leading think tank for the intelligent design movement.
"The common misconception is that we want to bring the Bible into the classroom and just preach out of Genesis instead of teaching science, and nothing could be further from the truth," Heffner said.
"We actually want more evolution taught. We want the whole story taught. What we're getting right now is an edited version. The problems with evolution are numerous; they are well-known. We pride ourselves for teaching kids to think for themselves, and yet we don't give them the full information."
Heffner told me he was keenly interested in the upcoming State Board of Education review of the science curriculum. In fact, he had appeared before the board in 2003, when a biology textbook was up for review.
"I'll ask you what I asked them, 'Whose kids are these anyway? They're not the evolutionists' kids alone. They're our kids too.' And my second question to them was, 'What's wrong with the truth? What's wrong with telling kids the truth?'"
The way Heffner saw it, Texas was just the latest battleground in a war that had been raging ever since publication of Origin of Species. Secular science, and Darwinism in particular, had done more to erode the moral fabric of our country than anything else, he said. For him the choice was simple. On one hand there was Jesus and the belief in a life after death, and on the other was Darwin and pond scum.
"We look at what kids are doing now—with drugs and sex and all the violence and gangs—and we wonder why. Well, it's obvious. We expect kids to make the right decision and then you tell them that they're nothing but evolved pond scum, nothing but an animal? And you wonder why their world view is basically one of 'me and now.'"
Before I left, I went back to the original museum to get a look at the fossils Baugh claimed to have dug from the river. Baugh's assistant showed me a duckbill dinosaur skull, some dinosaur eggs out of China and the fossilized print of a three-toed dinosaur. During the same dig, he said, they had also found the footprint of a prehistoric woman, size 7.
He said he knew this sounded crazy to a lot of people, and that he regularly fielded hostile questions from science teachers and the like. But he had numbers on his side. "More than 50 percent of Americans reject evolution and believe in some form of creationism," he told me. He also had power on his side. President George W. Bush had advocated teaching the "weaknesses" of evolutionary theory. Governor Perry had appointed a young-Earth creationist to head the board. And state Representative Warren Chisum, the powerful chair of the House Appropriations Committee, had gone so far as to distribute a memo to his fellow legislators attacking evolution as an anti-religious plot cooked up by an ancient Jewish sect. Perhaps the State Board of Education, being an elected body, was simply reflecting the will of the people.
As I was leaving, I thought of something Heffner had said: "If more than half the population doesn't believe in evolution, don't we also deserve equal representation in public schools? It's our tax dollars too, after all."
Last October, Chris Comer, then the director of science education for Texas public schools, got an e-mail inviting her to a lecture by a professor named Barbara Forrest. The name rang a bell. Forrest had testified in the much-publicized 2006 Pennsylvania case, Kitzmiller v. Dover, in which intelligent design had essentially been put on trial. After two weeks of testimony, which had included detailed discussion of topics such as bacteria flagellum and Galapagos finches, the judge ruled that intelligent design was not a scientific theory, as its proponents claimed, but "an interesting theological argument" that could not "uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents."
Like the rest of the science world, Comer had closely followed the trial and had been interested in Forrest's testimony. As Forrest saw it, intelligent design was part of a covert strategy to get creationism into public schools. This view was based on a document she claimed to have uncovered called "the wedge," in which the leaders of the intelligent design movement outlined a 20-year plan to reverse "the stifling materialistic worldview" of which evolution was a part and replace it with "a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions." Like a metal wedge splitting a log, they would introduce intelligent design into the classroom, which would open the way for creationism. Forrest had written an exposé on the movement, Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, and was coming to Austin to discuss the book.
Intrigued, Comer sent an e-mail to an online community of science teachers, notifying them of the lecture. Considering all the controversy over the teaching of evolution in Texas public schools, she figured the event could be enlightening.
According to Comer, an hour later she got an e-mail from a supervisor. She was told she shouldn't have sent the e-mail on a school computer. Comer apologized and then sent out another e-mail clarifying that her invitation had not been meant to suggest that she endorsed Forrest's views.
About a week later, Comer was told she could resign or be fired. Comer chose to resign.
Today, Comer says she's still not sure why she was fired, but she is almost certain it had something to do with the e-mail. For her, the episode is indicative of the power and influence of the religious right and how that has come to bear on the State Board of Education.
For most of its existence, the state board was not divided by political and religious ideologies. It occupied a sleepy corner of government, making headlines only when critics showed up to protest a sex ed book or the teaching of evolution. That began changing in the late 1980s, when the religious right began to realize the board's power. In addition to overseeing the $25 billion Permanent School Fund (a perpetual endowment established in 1854 to help finance public education), the state board also reviews curriculum and approves textbooks. In short, it determines what every public school student learns in every subject. For those interested in molding the minds of America's future leaders, there is no better place to start.
It wasn't until the election of San Antonio Republican Bob Offutt in 1992 that the Christian right's influence began to be felt on the board. Two years later, Offutt recruited five other far-right social conservatives to run. Their campaigns were ugly affairs and foreshadowed what lay ahead. In campaign fliers, Democratic incumbents were accused of promoting a "radical leftist agenda" that included homosexuality, lesbian adoption and condom usage. One flier included a picture of two shirtless men—one black and one white—kissing each other.
The smear tactics worked, and three of the five candidates won election. For the first time in history, Republicans had a majority on the state board. They would not have been able to do so if not for the support of James Leininger, a millionaire San Antonio hospital bed manufacturer known in leftist circles as "God's Sugardaddy." For the next 12 years, Leininger would continue to back state board candidates, often using his money to unseat a Republican who wasn't conservative enough. In 1998, he donated to the campaign of current chair Don McLeroy, and in 2004, he helped bankroll the candidacies of current board members Terri Leo, who directed attacks against a biology textbook in 2003; Barbara Cargill, the founder of a Bible-based science camp that teaches classes on intelligent design; and Gail Lowe, who also has advocated teaching the purported weaknesses of the theory of evolution.
Two years ago, he helped Cynthia Dunbar and Ken Mercer defeat their primary opponents by outspending them 3-to-1 and 5-to-1 respectively. During her campaign, Dunbar said she would like to see intelligent design taught in public schools, a concept she considers "at least as viable, if not more so, than evolution." With Dunbar and Mercer's victories, the religious right had attained seven seats on the board. Those seven members have voted in lockstep on almost every issue in the time since.
Ironically, despite their positions as guardians of the state public school system, several of these board members have eschewed public education for their own children, opting instead for home school and private schools. "I wish more voters and members of the media would ask about that," says Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network. "What is it exactly that you want to see done with public schools? And why, as someone who didn't even care enough about the public schools to join the PTA when your kids were young, do you now want to dictate what other people's kids learn and how they are taught?"
From the time social conservatives began taking control of the board in the mid-'90s, they pushed hard to remove material they deemed inappropriate from textbooks. In 1994, for example, social conservatives on and off the board demanded that publishers make hundreds of changes to proposed high school textbooks. Despite the fact that Texas had some of the highest teen birth and sexually transmitted disease rates in the nation at the time, they insisted that schools teach an "abstinence-only-until-marriage" form of sex education. They also made other demands, including that publishers remove illustrations of breast self-exams for cancer.
In response, in 1995 the state Legislature imposed strict limits on the board's ability to censor textbooks. The board could only reject a textbook if it contained factual errors, failed to meet manufacturing standards or did not meet established curriculum standards.
These guidelines had little effect on the board. Factual errors, board members decided, could include ideological objections to material either in textbooks or missing from them. In 2003, for example, the board demanded that a reference to the Ice Age occurring "millions of years ago" be changed to "in the distant past." A passage saying that fossils "explained" evolution was changed to "may explain" evolution. These changes conformed to the young-Earth creationist views that many of the state board members held.
By the next year, publishers were anticipating the arguments state board members would have to potentially objectionable material and responding in advance. Publishers brought proposed health textbooks to the board in 2004, for example, that did not have any information in them on using condoms to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
The censorship has continued to the present day. Last month, board chairman McLeroy asked the board to reject a proposed revision of the language arts curriculum that a committee of educators had been working on for two years to complete. In its place, he recommended a substitute document that had been rejected 10 years before. It was the work of a former Waco-area high school English teacher named Donna Garner. According to several state board members, McLeroy supported the alternative document because it includes a reading list of approved books (classics mostly) that teachers can not waver from.
"It's all about control," says Mary Helen Berlanga, a Democrat from Corpus Christi who has been on the board since 1982. "They want to dictate to teachers exactly what they can have students read. It's no longer the choice of the teacher, or even the school district."
It is no surprise that Democrats such as Berlanga would butt heads with Republicans on the board, but in recent years even old-line social conservatives such as Geraldine "Tincy" Miller have found themselves alienated from the far-right faction.
Miller, from Dallas, has served on the state board since 1984. For her, the sign that things had gone too far came last November when the board voted to reject a math textbook.
The book in question, a third-grade text that teaches a series called Everyday Math, had been a success in Miller's Dallas district. Between 2003 and 2007, classes that used it in the Dallas Independent School District had seen math scores improve 11 percent. Fourth-grade classes that had used the same series had seen scores rise nearly 32 percent, and fifth-grades using the series had seen a 42 percent improvement.
Miller argued passionately for the books. The state math review panel recommended them, as did the state's commissioner of education, and several top-notch private schools in the Dallas were using the book. But for reasons Miller didn't understand, the seven far-right members of the board were arguing against it.
"They said the multiplication tables didn't go high enough. They said it introduced calculators too early and that was a crutch," Miller recalls. "So I turned to the publisher and said, 'Here are the concerns they have, are you willing to work with the board and make these changes?' And they said, 'Absolutely.' They stayed up all night working on it, and in the morning they made this beautiful presentation on how they would make the changes."
Miller says the publishers then asked the board if they had any other requests. None was given. The vote was called. And the book was rejected 7-6.
"You know what that was? That was a display of power. That's when I realized the direction the board had gone and became very worried," Miller says.
Like others, Miller now thinks the main reason the book was rejected was to set a precedent.
"If they can reject a math book and not give a reason, then they can do the same thing to a science book," Berlanga says. "It was very clever how they got rid of that book in November, and they will use the same tactics to get rid of books that don't say what they want about intelligent design."
Comer, the former science director, agrees.
"I think this whole thing has been a rehearsed effort to get ready for when the science standards come up," Comer says. "The book Barbara Forrest wrote on the intelligent design movement is almost a template for what they're doing right now. It is their manifesto; it is what they're doing in the state of Texas."
As it stands, Texas state law requires that science teachers go over the strengths and weaknesses of the evolutionary theory. But a committee of educators now working on revamping the curriculum standards will recommend to the board that that provision be taken out.
"What they say sounds very reasonable—teach the controversy—but there is no controversy about evolution within the science community," says Kevin Fisher, a secondary science coordinator for the Lewisville Independent School District who is on the committee. "We always get a chuckle when someone says it's just a theory. Gravity is a theory; atomic structure is a theory. Theories are open to change, but they're open to change only if there is evidence to support another theory, and as it stands there is no evidence to support intelligent design."
Board member Mavis Knight of Dallas says McLeroy has told her the teaching of evolution will not come up during the review of the science curriculum, but this seems highly unlikely based on what McLeroy told me, and what he has said in the past on the subject.
At a 2005 lecture at Grace Bible Church in Bryan, for example, he encouraged the audience to work toward undermining the teaching of evolution in public schools.
"Keep chipping away at the objective empirical evidence," he said. "Keep pointing out that their deductive reasoning depends on the premise 'nature is all there is' to be true. Remind them that they may be wrong."
When I called McLeroy in February, he told me that while he will not push for the teaching of creationism in public schools, he will resist any efforts to take out the provision that requires teachers go over the weaknesses of the evolutionary theory.
"Evolution should be taught because that's the dominant view of science, you have to teach it. But I want to teach more of it," he said. "Hey, they've been teaching it for 50 to 60 years and still most of the people don't accept it, because it's so far-fetched. It's far-fetched!
"I'm looking at a beautiful tree out here, and according to what's in those textbooks we share a common ancestor with that tree. We're not descended from the tree, but we share a common ancestor. I mean, that's a pretty bold claim, and it's not supported by any evidence."
The vote this November is expected to go along party lines, and if history is any indication, the state board chamber will be packed with young-Earth creationists such as John Heffner and Barney Maddox, science educators such as Fisher, and others who fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
"What I'm hoping is that teachers come out in full force," Berlanga says. "Scientists are going to have to come out in full force, and I hope preachers will come out, as they have in the past, saying, 'Leave the creationism to me and my church, please don't leave it to the teachers. You teach the science, and I'll teach the faith.'"
For Comer, the stakes couldn't be much higher. Already, she says, science teachers are afraid to teach evolution, which she calls the cornerstone of biology.
"They look at my situation and they go, 'Boy, if she was fired, what hope is there for me?' And so they handle this with kid gloves. It's not just happening in Texas; it's happening across the country.
"Biology is such an important subject because it deals with understanding the human body and medicine and life. But it's not just about biology. I really think this whole thing about not understanding climate change and global warming and the attack on science in general that we've seen from this administration is another clear example of how radical groups that have little or no understanding of the nature of science are dictating to scientists what they can and cannot research, what they can and cannot say about subjects that are vital to our health and future."
In the end, the vote may come down to three board members—Tincy Miller, Hardy and Rick Agosto of San Antonio—who are seen as swing votes. Both Miller and Hardy, self-described conservative Republicans, told me they personally believe God created the Earth, but neither thinks this belongs in a science classroom.
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While Hardy won her election comfortably, the amount of money Barney Maddox spent to unseat her was enough to put fear into the state's science community. Miller, once considered the most conservative member on the board, thinks she might be next.
"Oh, I wouldn't be surprised at all if they target my seat in four years," she says.
In the meantime, the creationist movement shows no signs of slowing down. A multimillion dollar creation evidence museum is going up on the campus of the Oak Cliff-based Christ for the Nations mission church. The Dallas-based Institute of Creation Research is waiting on approval from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to offer masters degrees in creation science.
"These people won't give up," says Dan Quinn of the Texas Freedom Network. "They just keep evolving."