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A student at Georgia’s Columbus High School has lost an appeal in a case claiming her biology textbook violated her right to freedom of religion. The student, Rebecca Moeller, alleged that two passages in a chapter called “The Mystery of Life’s Origin” denigrated her belief in creationism and hindered the free exercise of her religious beliefs. Moeller, then 14, sued in 1999, requesting a declaratory judgment that the textbook’s content violated the First Amendment and asking for an injunction against its use. When the Muscogee Superior Court granted summary judgment against her, she appealed. The Georgia Court of Appeals on Thursday upheld the lower court, finding that the textbook, which mentioned creationism but stated that no definitive answer exists about the origin of life, did not violate Moeller’s First Amendment right to freedom of religion. Moeller v. Schrenko, No. A01A0956 (Ct. App. Ga. Aug. 9, 2001). Melanie Stockwell, director of legal services at the State Board of Education, says that although there is some case law on textbook content, “I’ve been here 5-1/2 years and that’s the first case I’ve seen in Georgia.” Usually, she says, people just complain to the Board of Education but do not litigate because it’s too expensive. Moeller’s father, Dr. Donald R. Moeller, a dentist and oral surgeon in Columbus, says he first brought the case pro se, after his daughter came home from school upset about her biology class. “She said, ‘They made fun of God in the classroom,’ ” he says. He also notes that the teacher’s edition of the textbook mentioned having the students discuss the “ myths” of creation. TWO PASSAGES CHALLENGED The Moellers, according to the appellate court opinion, objected to two passages in the 1,072-page textbook, “Biology Principles and Exploration,” by George Johnson and Peter Raven. The book was approved by the Muscogee County School Board for the ninth-grade honors biology course. The first passage the Moellers found offensive, according to the opinion, says many of the world’s religions attribute the creation of the earth to a divine power. That belief differs from a scientific hypothesis, according to the book, because the essence of a scientific hypothesis is that the idea could, at least in principle, be proven false. One part of the passage said: “Try to imagine an observation that would disprove divine creation. Whatever you propose, it is always possible to argue that a divine agent simply made things appear the way they do. Because the idea that life originated through divine creation cannot be tested by scientific methods, it falls outside the realm of science. This is not to say that the belief is wrong, but rather that science can never test it.” The opinion said Rebecca Moeller also objected to a second passage. It reads, in part: “As you can see, the scientific vision of life’s origin is at best a hazy outline viewed from a long distance through dark glasses. While scientists cannot disprove the hypothesis that life originated naturally and spontaneously, little is known about what actually happened. … [B]ecause researchers do not yet understand how DNA, RNA, and hereditary mechanisms first developed, science is currently unable to resolve disputes concerning the origin of life.” ESTABLISHMENT CLAUSE CLAIM The Moellers contended that the textbook’s references to creationism and evolutionism violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, but the appellate court disagreed. “In general, the Establishment Clause ensures that the State neither endorses nor denounces religious beliefs,” wrote Chief Judge G. Alan Blackburn. The court cited the so-called Lemon test, which says a state action affecting religious belief or practice is constitutional as long as the state action has a secular purpose, neither advances nor inhibits religion, and does not foster excessive state entanglement with religion. Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 US 602, 612 (1971). But, Blackburn noted, the Lemon test wasn’t even triggered in Moeller’s case because the facts didn’t support establishment of religion. “The text criticized by Moeller does not sponsor religious actions or beliefs,” the appellate court said. “To the contrary, it points out that the origin of life is, to date, unknown, and it lists the most prevalent ideas regarding this issue, including creation and evolution. Indeed, the subchapter containing the offending passages is titled ‘The Mystery of Life’s Origin.’ “ The court also wrote that, contrary to Moeller’s arguments, the textbook does not pass judgment on the validity of the creation theory, explicitly pointing out that although creationism isn’t subject to scientific proof, it may be the correct explanation for life’s origin. Even if Moeller had made a viable Establishment Clause claim, it still would have failed the Lemon test, the court wrote. According to the court: The textbook was used for the secular purpose of educating biology students about the scientific method and most common explanations for the origin of life. Its primary effect was not to advance or prohibit religion, because even under Moeller’s view it contained only two objectionable passages out of more than 1,000 pages. And the school board’s broad discretion in determining curricula does not constitute excessive entanglement with religion. Moeller also argued that the textbook’s use hindered her free exercise of religion. Again, the appeals court disagreed. Moeller failed to show that using the textbook prevented or substantially burdened her ability to practice her religious beliefs, the court said. Presiding Judge Marion T. Pope Jr. and Judge Charles B. Mikell Jr. concurred in the judgment. Neither the Moellers’ appellate attorney, David J. Grindle, nor the attorney for the superintendent of education, James Humes II of Hatcher, Stubbs, Land, Hollis & Rothschild in Columbus, could be reached for comment. Donald Moeller, who had not yet seen the appellate opinion, says he’s not sure what his next legal step will be. Outside the court context, he says he plans to go to the Georgia Legislature to point out what he believes is wrong: that although creationism can’t be taught in public schools, it apparently can be ridiculed there, while evolution is safe from criticism. He says he simply wants equal time for creationist and scientific views. Also, he says that different states — including Louisiana and Arkansas — have interpreted the Lemon test differently, in ways that would cut against the use of a textbook such as the one in his daughter’s case. “It’s not over,” he says. “I want equal time.”

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