San Jose, Calif. — Operators of a University of California-Berkeley Web site that is designed to help teachers teach evolution are being sued by a California couple who say the site improperly strays into religion.
Defendants include two top biologists from the UC Museum of Paleontology, which runs the Understanding Evolution Web site, http://evolution.berkeley.edu, and an official from the National Science Foundation, who is named because the foundation provided more than $400,000 in public funding for the site.
The lawsuit is one of many skirmishes under way across the country over how evolution is taught in schools. Some anti-evolution efforts are being pressed by proponents of "intelligent design," the idea that living organisms are so complex they must have been created by a higher intelligence.
But the Granite Bay, Calif., couple who brought the Web site suit, Jeanne Caldwell and her husband, Larry, who is representing her in the lawsuit, say they are not proponents of intelligent design. They object to the teaching of evolution as scientific fact.
"Yes, I'm a Christian," Jeanne Caldwell said, "but I would not categorize myself as an ID proponent. I believe God created the world."
The suit, which was filed last month, specifically objects to portions of the Understanding Evolution Web site that deal with the interplay of science and religion. For example, it challenges the site's linking to doctrinal statements from a variety of religions to demonstrate that "most Christian and Jewish religious groups have no conflict with evolution."
That amounts to a government endorsement of certain religious groups over others, the suit contends, and is an effort "to modify the beliefs of public school science students so they will be more willing to accept evolutionary theory as true."
An attorney representing the Berkeley scientists said the case makes a variation on an argument that courts have repeatedly rejected - that teaching evolution in itself is teaching a religious idea.
"The courts in many cases have said evolution is a scientific idea and there is no prohibition on the government teaching a scientific idea even if it conflicts" with some people's religious beliefs, said university counsel Christopher Patti.
The Understanding Evolution site was funded with a National Science Foundation grant awarded in 2001 and it went live in September 2004. The site grew out of a national conference hosted by the Museum of Paleontology in 2000 on teaching evolution, which was increasingly coming under attack. A theme that emerged from the conference was the need for updated teaching material.
The site was developed to provide teachers with up-to-date content and lessons and aid them in responding to students' questions, said Judy Scotchmoor, the museum's assistant director of education and public programs and a science teacher for 25 years.