Evolution, religion comments put heat on department spokesman

Normally, a government spokesman helps deliver news.

But David Awbrey, the mouthpiece for the Kansas State Department of Education, is making the news following his comments about science, evolution and religion at a recent public forum.

The controversy may drive him out of the job.

“I haven’t been house-trained in public relations,” Awbrey said Thursday, adding, “I’m going to have to spend some time during the next week or two thinking about where I’m going to go with my career.”

Awbrey is a Kansas University graduate and former newspaperman who once was editorial page editor for the Wichita Eagle.

At a Kansas City Press Club forum earlier this month, Awbrey argued that evolution proponents are practicing a religion. Supporting evolution, he said, is metaphysical speculation.

“Anyone see the origin?” he said. “Anyone see the Big Bang? Anyone see the dinosaurs? These are metaphysical speculations.”

Sue Gamble, a moderate Republican member of the state board who attended the forum, said she emphatically disagreed with the tone and content of Awbrey’s statements.

Janet Waugh, also a Democrat and board member, had similar sentiments.

“When he is doing his job as public information officer, he should not have an opinion,” said Waugh, who did not attend the forum. “When he is speaking for the board, he should represent the entire board. I think it was totally inappropriate.”

Conservative board member Kathy Martin, who did not attend the event, said she was unfamiliar with the issue, but said if she were a spokeswoman, she would make clear when she was speaking for herself and when she was speaking for the organization she represented.

Awbrey was hired in November by new state education Commissioner Bob Corkins to take the post of director of communications.

Having left the newspaper trade, he was planning on working as a school teacher, when Corkins tapped him for the communications director post.

Awbrey said his appearance at the forum was not on work time and he did not charge the state department for his mileage. He said he believed he was there to speak as a journalist and thought some people would know him from his former life – as a journalist and not a spokesman for the state department. But he also said that his boss, Bob Corkins, told him to go to the event.

“He was the one who sent me,” Awbrey said. “He told me to go.”

State Board Chairman Steve Abrams vouched for Awbrey.

“We were there as individuals and were speaking for ourselves,” he said.

Jack Krebs, of Kansas Citizens for Science, attended the event and posted audio recordings of the proceedings on the organization’s Web site, www.kcfs.org.

“They just didn’t invite him because he was an interesting journalist,” Krebs said. “He introduced himself as David Awbrey, director of communications.”

Awbrey’s statements provoked a Kansas resident to pen a letter to the editor that appeared in The Topeka Capital-Journal newspaper.

“Mr. Awbrey’s starting salary at the KSDE is $76,000 per year,” wrote Cheryl Shepherd-Adams, of Hays. “He knows less about science than a beginning science teacher who will have to work for about 10 years to earn just half of Mr. Awbrey’s paycheck. Why is he telling that same teacher how science should be taught?”

Awbrey then wrote a reply.

“I think we should be humble and avoid claiming absolute knowledge of things that could well be beyond our intellectual or moral abilities to comprehend,” Awbrey wrote, signing the letter with his communications director title.

A self-described “theistic evolutionist,” Awbrey said Thursday he believes that both sides of the evolution debate are unyielding and both are engaged in metaphysical speculation.

“Both sides are practicing what I would say is a form of religion,” he said. “I think we need a little humility on both sides. I think we need to recognize that human knowledge is perhaps limited.”