Selman v. Cobb County School District

Selman v. Cobb County School District

Selman v. Cobb County School District was a 2005 American court case in Cobb County, Georgia involving a sticker placed in biology textbooks. The sticker was a disclaimer stating that evolution was "only a theory" and "not a fact". Using the colloquial definitions of theory and fact the sticker casts doubt on the scientific consensus regarding evolutionary theory (for a further discussion see evolution as theory and fact").

After a trial, the sticker was found by Federal District Judge Clarence Cooper to violate the establishment clause of the US Constitution. However, this was overturned on a technicality by appeals court, who sent it back to the original district court. It was then settled out of court in favor of the plaintiffs.


In 2001 the school district began the process of adopting new science textbooks. The adoption process led to a legal review, and later revision, of existing policy and regulation on theories of origin. When parents became aware that the new textbook and changes in policy would result in strengthening the teaching of evolution, a petition against this was organised and signed by 2,300 parents. In an attempt to diffuse this protest, the new textbook (written by Kenneth Miller and Joseph Levine) was adopted on the condition that the sticker would be attached to them. [ Order in Selman v. Cobb County School District] ]

The disclaimer read:

quotation|This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

Approved by
Cobb County Board of Education
Thursday, March 28, 2002
[cite news|last=Parker|first=Laura|title=School science debate has evolved|url=|work=USA Today|date=2004-11-28|accessdate=2008-06-15]

The expression "evolution is a theory and not a fact" has been used as a tactic by creationists and intelligent design advocates, [ [ CA201] , Mark Isaak, Index to Creationist Claims,] cite news|title=Judge: Evolution stickers unconstitutional|url=|publisher=CNN|date=2005-01-14|accessdate=2008-08-01 Judge Cooper wrote: "...the distinction of evolution as a theory rather than a fact is the distinction that religiously motivated individuals have specifically asked school boards to make in the most recent anti-evolution movement."] where "theory" is understood in a colloquial sense to signify "conjecture", "speculation" or "opinion". Creationist website "Creation on the Web" discourages such methods. [cite web|title=Arguments we think creationists should NOT use|url=|work=Creation on the Web|publisher=Creation Ministries International|accessdate=2008-08-01]

Both creationist and intelligent design teaching in schools has been subject to various legal challenges and has been found to be a violation of the Establishment Clause (notably "Edwards v. Aguillard", "Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District"). A similar oral disclaimer, required by one school district before teaching of evolution, had previously been ruled unconstitutional in the 1997 case "Freiler v. Tangipahoa" in Louisiana.

The plaintiffs brought suit against the school district on November 8, 2004. [ [ National Center for Science Education] Cobb County Disclaimer Goes to Trial, NCSE, November 8, 2004]

In 2005, as a parody of the warning labels affixed in all biology textbooks mentioning evolution, the leading scientific journal "Nature" put a "warning label" about evolution on its front cover. [ [ Warning: This journal contains evolution] , NCSE]

Original decision

The original decision in January 2005 decided that the stickers violated the Lemon test, that is:
# The government's action must have a legitimate secular purpose;
# The government's action must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion; and
# The government's action must not result in an "excessive entanglement" of the government and religion.

On the first prong, the judge decided that the government's intention was secular;

"the court found that the School Board sought to advance two secular purposes... encourage students to engage in critical thinking... [and] reduce offense to those students and parents whose personal beliefs might conflict with teaching on evolution."
[ Selman v. Cobb County School District] , U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division. Full text of decision courtesy] However, it noted that it violated the second prong.

The critical language of the Sticker that supports the conclusion that the Sticker runs afoul of the Establishment Clause is the statement that " [e] volution is a theory, not a fact, concerning the origin of living things." This statement is not problematic because of its truth or falsity, although testimony from various witnesses at trial and the amicus brief submitted by the Colorado Citizens for Science, et al., suggest that the statement is not entirely accurate. Rather, the first problem with this language is that there has been a lengthy debate between advocates of evolution and proponents of religious theories of origin specifically concerning whether evolution should be taught as a fact or as a theory, and the School Board appears to have sided with the proponents of religious theories of origin in violation of the Establishment Clause.

The National Center for Science Education applauded the decision as "Victory in Cobb County." [ [ Victory in Cobb County] , NCSE January 13 2005]

Appeal and retrial

On May 25, 2006 the decision was vacated by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which remanded the case back to the original court for further findings of fact. [ [ Appeal decision] , United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.] The plaintiffs appealed for a retrial to which the courts agreed. The plaintiffs utilized the same attorneys, Eric Rothschild and Richard Katskee of Pepper Hamilton, who had prevailed in "Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District" in 2005. They also use Brian Alters, [ [ Alters expert report for retrial] ] Kenneth R. Miller, [ [ Miller expert report for retrial] ] and Eugenie Scott [ [ Eugenie Scott Expert Witness Report for retrial] ] as expert witnesses.

Settlement out of court

On December 19 2006 Americans United for Separation of Church and State announced that the case had been settled out of court in favor of the plaintiffs. Cobb County school officials will not order the placement of "any stickers, labels, stamps, inscriptions, or other warnings or disclaimers bearing language substantially similar to that used on the sticker that is the subject of this action" and would not undermine science education in the future. [ [ Americans United Applauds Settlement Of Georgia Lawsuit Over Evolution Disclaimer] , Americans United for Separation of Church and State, December 19, 2006] The school district also agreed to pay $166,659 towards attorneys' fees in the case. [ [ Georgia’s Cobb County School Board settles evolution sticker suit ] ] The decision was hailed by the National Center for Science Education [ [ A settlement in Selman v. Cobb County] , NCSE, December 19, 2006 ] and the American Civil Liberties Union. [ [ Georgia School Board Drops Defense of Anti-Evolution Stickers] , ACLU]

The website Answers in Genesis responded, "It’s definitely a victory for humanism and censorship, but it is not a victory for science or for parents or their children who are being told they cannot question or challenge evolution in the classroom." [ [ Cobb county textbook stickers gone for good] , Answers in Genesis, December 21 2006.] . The Discovery Institute offered takes on the ruling that were viewed as "spin" [ [ For every setback, spin spin spin] Reed A. Cartwright. The Panda's Thumb, January 15, 2005.] and issued an official opinion that an "incompetent defense by Cobb County attorney may have caused [the] school district loss." [ [ Incompetent Defense by Cobb County Attorney May Have Caused School District Loss] Discovery Institute staff.]


External links

* [ Trial transcripts]
* [ Text of the original decision]
* [ 11th circuit appeal decision]
* [ CNN article on the case]

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