SAN ANTONIO - A Texas vote on middle school curriculum due on Friday has become the latest battleground over the teaching of creationism or "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution in public schools.
At issue is whether Texas education leaders will approve supplemental materials, as recommended by Education Commissioner Robert Scott, that some Christian conservatives complain don't adequately address "alternatives to evolution" as a theory of how life began.
In 2009 in a move that grabbed headlines across the country, a more conservative Texas State Board of Education approved standards encouraging debate over the veracity of evolution science.
Rejecting the supplemental materials on Friday would be a win for conservative groups who want the curriculum to reflect a "diversity of views" on science. That has made evolution proponents nervous.
Debate on the issue grew heated during a hearing on Thursday, even as board members sought to reassure the crowd that none of the supplemental materials currently being considered mentioned creationism.
"Do you also plan to start teaching the philosophy of Astrology as science?" retiree Tom Davis asked the board.
Jonathan Saenz of the conservative Liberty Institute, which supports questioning evolution in classrooms, said the scientific community was not united on evolution.
"There are scientists who have all kinds of different views. That's what the scientific community is all about."
Texas is not the only state to grapple with the evolution debate in recent years.
A Pennsylvania judge stopped a school district from requiring teachers to read a statement to biology students that mentioned intelligent design in 2005, ruling it had too many religious overtones.
In 2009, Louisiana lawmakers passed a law letting teachers use materials outside the textbooks when they teach about the origins of life in what opponents said could be a back door to disputing evolution in the classroom.
On the flip side, Florida in 2008 began requiring schools to teach evolution. Before then, standards only referenced "change over time."
Materials in question
The Texas board, which includes a very vocal minority of evangelical Christians, was considering the content of so called 'supplemental materials,' including the first online items to be approved for use in Texas schools.
The materials will not directly impact the books that students read, but will provide guidance for teachers.
Supplemental materials were being considered rather than entirely new textbooks due to budget cuts approved this year by the Texas legislature. The board has not voted on science educational materials since the 2009 decision.
Currently, no creationism-related materials were on the table. But voting down the recommended materials would be a nod to groups like the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which e-mailed the board earlier this year asking members to consider materials that teach evolution alternatives.
Evolution advocates are concerned over the views of the board's newly appointed chairwoman, Barbara Cargill, a self-described conservative Christian and former biology teacher who has disputed the theory of evolution. She has said its weaknesses should be laid out in science classes.
She was elected in 2004 and appointed to chair the board earlier this summer by Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who is considering a run for president.
Intelligent design and creationism are theories that life on Earth was created essentially the way it is described in the Bible's Book of Genesis — not by evolution, but by a 'creative intelligence' generally considered to be the Christian God.
"I offer a $500 reward to anybody who can come forward and show any references to Jesus or God in any measures we have approved," board member Ken Mercer said. "It is just not there."
(Editing by Karen Brooks and Cynthia Johnston)